Since the time of the Oslo peace process, violence and persecution against Palestinian Christians has been steadily on the rise. Relations between the Muslims and Christians in the areas under PA control have deteriorated, with thousands of Christians fleeing their holy sites and ancestral properties to live elsewhere. For the Christian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, life under the thumb of the Islamists threatens their existence as a community and has forced many to flee their homes.
Israel is home to some 150,000 Christians, of which 80% are Arabs, constituting 2.1% of the total population. Israel is the only country in the Middle East that welcomes Christians, offers them freedom of worship and consequently is the one place in the region where the Christian population has grown.
By contrast, the Christian population of the Palestinian territories has declined precipitously from 15 percent in 1950 to less than 2 percent today.
Tulkaram had a community of 2,000 Christians just 30 years ago, now numbers 12 families. “We are preparing to move abroad to a place where we can live a better life as Christians,” said Reverend Dahoud Dimitry, head of Tulkaram’s Saint George Greek Orthodox Church, which was burned to the ground in the September 2006 riots following the publication of cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammad in Danish newspapers.
The Christian population of Bethlehem, the ancient biblical town that has been the destination for Christian pilgrims for nearly two millennia, has fallen below 20 percent. Christians there still have not forgotten the siege of the 1,400-year-old Church of the Nativity, the sacred birthplace of Jesus, by 100 militiamen loyal to PA Chairman Yasser Arafat in 2002. They held dozens hostage, including priests and nuns, desecrated bibles, emptied the church coffers, and lit sections of the centuries-old church on fire. The former mayor of Bethlehem, Hanna Nasser, has said bluntly, “There is no future for Christians.”
Reverend Tomey Dahoud, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Taubus, a city near Jenin, agreed. “The Islamic people want to kill us. That’s their principle and belief. They don’t want Christians in this country. They don’t want to hear our names; they don’t want to see us. That’s the reality.” His church was firebombed in the September 2006 riots.
Even in Ramallah, considered the most liberal city under Palestinian control, threats against Christians are commonplace. Pastor Isa Bajalia, an evangelical Arab-American pastor, living in Ramallah since 1991 with his wife and son, was threatened repeatedly by a Fatah security official from the Tanzim militia. The official tried to bribe Bajalia, demanding $30,000 in turn for protection. As a result of the threats, Bajalia was forced to flee to nearby Jerusalem.
Relations between Palestinian Christians and Muslims have deteriorated in the decade under PA rule. The situation has grown especially precarious in Gaza since Hamas’ rise to power in January 2006, with the imposition of shari’ah, or Islamic, law making life unbearably difficult for Gaza’s Christian population. Attacks against holy sites and individuals has become commonplace since Hamas’ takeover.
In the most recent attack, unknown assailants detonated a bomb outside a Christian school in Gaza City in May 2008. This was not the first bombing of the Zahwa Rosary School, which was previously ransacked in June 2007 during an intense week of fighting that ultimately ended with Hamas’ seizure of power. A school official out into words what many Christians living in Gaza feel: “We don’t feel safe. There’s no security here.” The failure of Hamas to fully investigate these incidences, as well as others in the past, are serious cause for concern for Gaza’s Christian residents.
In January 2008, a convoy of some 400 Christians left Gaza for Bethlehem, and did not plan on returning. Other Christians say they plan to flee once the borders are reopened. About 2,000 Christians remain in Gaza among 1.5 million people Muslims. Most Christians are college-educated professionals who work as engineers, doctors, and merchants, and live in the Rimal section of Gaza City. In the entire Gaza Strip, there are only five small Christian chapels, a Christian school, and a bible store.
In September 2006, seven churches in the West Bank and Gaza were ransacked over the course of three days in revenge for comments made by Pope Benedict XVI regarding Islam, and the publication of the Danish cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammed.
In June 2007, Muslim extremists attacked and destroyed the Rosary Sisters School and the Latin Church in Gaza City. The intruders burned copies of the Bible. The increased number of attacks on Gaza’s Christians has caused many to say they fear for their lives. “Christians can’t openly wear their crosses outside. In the streets, because of the pressure, our women have started to cover their heads like the Muslims. Our people have become afraid,” explained Reverend Hanna Massad, pastor of the Gaza Baptist Church. “There is pressure and discrimination on all levels for all of the Christians in Gaza.”
Rami Ayyad owned a religious bookstore in Gaza. He had been involved in numerous charitable organizations and was also a member of the Baptist Church. His store and charity organization, the Bible Society, had been a frequent target of Muslim extremists. A grenade was thrown at the building during protests over the publication of a Danish cartoon that depicted the prophet Mohammed. Ayyad had also received continuous death threats for his perceived missionary work. He was married with two small children, and was just two weeks shy of his 30th birthday when he was found shot in the head and stabbed multiple times 10 hours after he was kidnapped from his store.
One Christian leader expressed his fear after months of increased attacks: “This latest incident is aimed at sending a message to all the Christians here that we must leave. Radical Islamic groups are waging a campaign to get rid of us and no one seems to care.” Many in Gaza’s tiny Christian community, including the Baptist Church’s full-time pastor and twelve of Ayyad’s bookstore employees, fled to the West Bank to escape further violence.
The head of Gaza’s Roman Catholic Church, Rev. Mauel Musallem, said he knows seven families that sold their properties in Gaza and left for safer pastures in the aftermath of Ayyad’s slaying. Fifteen more were preparing to do the same, he said.
Ayyad’s family was again targeted in December 2007, when masked Muslim gunmen attempted to kill his cousin, Nabil Fuad Ayyad, who works at a local church. The group that kidnapped and murdered Rami is said to be responsible for Nabil’s attempted kidnapping as well. Witnesses identified the group as members of the radical Islamic Salafi movement. The movement has become particularly active in the Gaza Strip in the last year. It opposes any Western influence, and refers to Gaza’s Christians as Crusaders who need to be driven from the land.
Gaza’s Christians planned to spend their 2007 Christmas in Bethlehem in the West Bank and keep a low profile. Church celebrations and services in Gaza were either significantly toned down or canceled. Virtually no Christmas trees or decorations were on display. Hamas banned any celebration in Gaza of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, a traditional Christian holiday period. Many who traveled to the West Bank for the holiday did not plan on returning to Gaza.
For Christian women living under Muslim rule, the situation is particularly worrisome. Simply walking down the street without a traditional hijab, or head covering, marks Christian women as outsiders.
Residents of Bethlehem report near-daily occurrences of sexual harassment of Christian women by Muslim men. A Christian man remembered his friend’s daughter returning home after midnight mass on Christmas eve one year, a supposed time of joy and celebration in the town of Jesus’ birth. “…She had red blotches all over her body. They were from the Muslim men who pinched her, and she couldn’t do anything to stop them,” he recalled.
Attacks against woman began as early as 2001, when a former commander of Arafat’s Tanzim militia attempted to rape two Christian teenage sisters from the West Bank village of Beit Jallah. When they tried to refuse him, he murdered them both. The following year, another of Arafat’s commanders in the al-Aqsa Bridages raped a Christian woman in Beit Shahur.
In addition to sexual harassment, forced conversion by Muslim men has become more routine. A young 16-year-old Christian girl was kidnapped from her home in Bethlehem in 2007 and brought to a Muslim village near Hebron. When her priest and family finally located her, they found her dressed head to toe in Muslim garb and said she had converted to Islam. A gunfight broke when her family attempted to take her from the house where she was staying. “It was a real war,” said Faise Omar, the father of the man who brought the girl to the village. “It was not just a war over the couple. It was a war between Muslims and Christians.”
Other reports of kidnapping and forced conversion are equally disturbing. A Christian professor, Sana al-Sayegh, who teaches at Palestine Univerity in Gaza City was kidnapped by Hamas militiamen and forced against her will to convert to Islam in June 2007. The President of the university, Dr. Zaher Khail, reportedly assisted the armed gunmen in their operation, as well as Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh.