Gaza, Asharq Al-Awsat- Abu Saeed, a vendor selling electrical appliances in Gaza City’s Rimal district says he that it only occurs to him that the vendor selling foodstuffs next door, Abu Hana is Christian during the Christian holidays. They have been working together in their neighboring shops for over 30 years, exchanging greetings and pleasantries, as well as praying in the nearby mosque and church respectively.
In a city that has been inhabited since 3000 BC, Gaza’s first monastery was built over 1,500 years ago. The site, an ancient Byzantine monastery near Nusseirat in the Gaza Strip, was excavated by the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1998. The church on the site is believed to have been erected at the end of the fourth century AD.
The majority of Christians in Gaza are Greek Orthodox. In present day Gaza, 3,000 Christians live among 1.5 million Muslims on a narrow plot of land that does not exceed 360 square kilometers. Governed by Hamas since it seized control of the territory after fighting Fatah last June, Gaza’s Christian residents have witnessed some violent upheaval in recent times.
Last October 7, prominent Christian activist and Director of the Protestant Holy Bible Society, Rami Ayyad, was abducted and slain. Although no one has stepped up to claim responsibility for the murder, Western media rushed to exploit the situation politically.
In turn, the ruling Hamas government responded by stating that the crime was committed as an attempt to stigmatize the movement with “charges of religious persecution”. This prompted Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the movement and former Prime Minister of the PA, to order the establishment of an investigative committee to urgently look into the matter, while also labeling Ayyad’s death as a “murderous crime”.
“We are all part of one people; we suffer together and fight together for the sake of freedom, independence and the restoration of our inalienable national rights. We are waging a single struggle for freedom and independence and we refuse to allow any party to tamper with and manipulate this historical relationship,” stated Haniyeh.
Acting promptly, the leadership and ministers of Hamas visited with Christian clergymen and provided assurances and the necessary protection for their institutions, in addition to restoring the damage to those that had been vandalized a few months ago. The Rosary Sisters School and the Latin Church had been torched and looted last June during Hamas’s takeover of Gaza.
And yet, despite the recent violent events and the efforts exerted by some politicians and the media to create a rift between the Christian and Muslim communities in Gaza, relations have remained mutually intact.
Abu Hana the Christian shopkeeper said that politics and those whom he described as “professional exploiters” have exaggerated the incident and tried to manipulate it although it was a normal, albeit tragic, crime that could have happened to anyone; Muslim or Christian alike.
“If the crime was indeed committed as some say for religious reasons, then it is no more than just an isolated incident not a phenomenon that warrants inciting dissension. This is especially true since Gaza has been witnessing murders over the most trivial matters for many long months in which hundreds of Palestinians have fallen victim,” said Abu Hana.
However, this does not mean turning the blind eye to crimes committed against Christians. Recently, neighboring Egypt witnessed tumultuous events which the media rushed to highlight and launch campaigns with the intention of tearing the national fabric and national ties between fellow Egyptians.
Abu Hana recalled how during the first Intifada in 1987, a Christian Palestinian citizen was killed and how less than a few hours had elapsed before the Israeli media rushed to claim that the murder had been motivated by religion. A few days later it was revealed that murder was over a land dispute.
Since Hamas seized control of Gaza, its leaders rushed to reassure the Christian community that they would be safe; their rights and property would be protected and they would be guaranteed their right to freedom of worship. In return, they were to maintain good relations with all the Palestinian factions and refrain from any actions that could lead to internal conflicts.
Previously, President of the PA Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah had maintained good relations with the Christian community, which was a main contributing factor to the success of both parties.
Gaza’s Christian community mostly lives within the city, especially in areas neighboring the three main churches; St. Porphyrus, the Latin Church on Zeitoun St., and the Gaza Baptist Church, the city’s only Evangelical Church that lies close to the Legislative Council [parliamentary building] and the Unknown Soldier square in the central Gaza.
Christians in Gaza freely practice their religion, some follow churches such as the Greek Orthodox Church, Catholic (Latin Church) and Evangelical churches, amongst others. Likewise, they observe all the religious holidays in accordance with the Christian calendars followed by their churches.
Those among them working as civil servants in the government and in the private sector are given an official holiday during the week, which some devote to communal prayer in churches. Christians among Palestinian citizens are granted the right to obtain any job, in addition to having their full rights and duties as their Muslim counterparts in accordance with the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, the regime, and all the systems prevailing over the territories.
Moreover, seats have been allocated to Christian citizens in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in accordance with a quota system in the constituencies with a large Christian presence.
A recent census has revealed that 40 percent of the Christian community works in the medical, educational, engineering and law sectors. Additionally, the churches in Gaza are renowned for the relief and educational services that they offer, and Muslim citizens take part in them without any hesitation. Palestinian citizens as a whole benefit from these services such as those offered at the Latin Patriarchate School which offers relief, medication, social and educational services. The school is considered the center of Catholicism in Palestine and Jordan and has been offering services for nearly 150 years.
In 1974, the idea of establishing a new school was proposed by Father Jalil Awad, a former parish priest in Gaza who recognized the need to expand the Latin Patriarchate School and build a new complex. Moreover; today, the Holy family school has 1,250 students and the Roman Catholic primary school, which is an extension of the Latin Patriarchate School, continues to enroll a rising number of young students. The primary school was established approximately 20 years ago.
Aside from education, other services are offered to Muslims and Christians alike with no discrimination and they include women’s, students’ and youth groups, such as those offered at the Baptist Church on weekdays.
According to Father Elias Awad, the pastor of Gaza’s Orthodox Church, St. Porphyr, “The church is a place for worship and it has its institutions that meet the society’s educational needs. And since the church congregation is comprised of Arabs; it adopts the Arabic curriculum.”
The Christian community in Gaza and the rest of the Palestinian territories have their views regarding the Zionist project, and they are aware of the serious threat against their nation and religion. However, they are also aware of the impact of the Christian doctrine on Palestinian national identity and they have declared positions, terminology and conflicts related to the so-called “conflict of civilizations.”
“But civilizations [should] complement one another… not fight, since there are benefits and interests in integration [to be gained] from every successive civilization,” Father Awad said.
He added that, “the Christian church in Palestine has been, and will always be, a nationalistic church that defends the rights of its congregation. There is no hatred or racism in our church and we are against wars. The church encourages love and peace and the protection of the rights of all people.”
His opinion of the Zionist project was, “As Christian clergymen and as Palestinians primarily, we oppose the Zionist project that seeks to occupy Palestinian land and expel Palestinians from their homes, because that destroys the chances of creating a Palestinian state and also usurps the rights of the people.”
“We are with the Israelis who are pro-peace and who believe in the rights of the Palestinian people and the right to establish an independent state and to regain our occupied land. We support peace and the Palestinian National Authority’s efforts to attain it so as to live in harmony with our neighbors in Israel without occupation or war,” Father Awad added.
Aside from their spiritual and humanitarian roles, Christian church priests in Gaza have played a distinct role in the national resistance against Israel. Father Elias Rashmawi, who a pastor from 1925-1952 was one of the key figures in the resistance. Likewise, father George Awad was part of the first Intifada from 1977 until 1999 and was a renowned activist among the community.
The vicar of the independent Baptist Church in Gaza, Dr. Hana Musad said, “Palestinian Christians are an integral part of the Palestinian community. It’s true that our religious identity is Christian, but we are Palestinian citizens and have played an active role in the making of the Palestinian national and cultural identity.”
“We aspire to see a democratic nation with Jerusalem as its capital; a nation in which we can regain our national rights. We reject war and call for love and forgiveness and the respect of everyone’s human rights. We believe in the formation of two states that can live side-by-side in peace and mutual respect,” he added.