Monday, April 26, 2010

Christians walk fine line in Gaza balancing act

GAZA CITY: A tiny Palestinian Christian community has had to find a modus vivendi in the Islamist-ruled Gaza Strip, while enduring the same hardships as Muslims in the besieged and impoverished coastal enclave.

Caught in the crossfire of the Israel-Hamas conflict which cost 1,400 lives in a December 2008-January 2009 war and wary of groups more radical than Gaza’s rulers, discretion has been the name of the game.

“Each moment is a balancing act. We have to stay alert at all times,” said Greek Orthodox Archbishop Alexios after a service attended by around 100 worshippers in Gaza City’s Saint Porphyrios church.

“We have good relations with the Hamas leadership. Tolerance serves both sides,” said Alexios, who has regular meetings at the highest level at Hamas-run ministries.

“They asked us if we need guards for the church” after a spate of violent incidents in 2007 and 2008, when a member of the Baptist Church was murdered and several Christian targets were firebombed, he added.

“We said we felt very safe. We don’t want guards,” added Alexios, whose flock accounts for about 2,500 of the estimated 3,000 Palestinian Christians in the densely populated narrow territory of 1.5 million people.

He has also instructed members of his Church not to give in to demands for women in Gaza’s traditionally conservative society to wear Islamic headscarves, whether it be at school or on the streets.

But to respect the red lines of conduct, apparent would-be converts are turned away to avoid accusations of proselytising, a criminal offence in Muslim countries.

Amid alleged Baptist efforts to convert people through aid work in an enclave suffering an economic meltdown and perceived Western influences, Bible School bookshop-owner Rami Ayyad was kidnapped and killed in October 2007.

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