Rumours or reality? Palestinian Christians in Gaza

The Jerusalem Post claims that Palestinian Christians in Gaza are being persecuted, and that many are trying to leave the Hamas-controlled territory. But there are some in Gaza who say this is simply not true. MENASSAT asked the Gazans.
gaza churches
Palestinian Christians celebrating Easter. © AFP

GAZA, December 19, 2008 (MENASSAT) — The Jerusalem Post published an article last week about a Palestinian Christian exodus out of Gaza, claiming that the small Christian community has fallen victim to "a systematic campaign of persecution" in the Gaza Strip, and to a lesser extent in the West Bank.

But when MENASSAT's correspondent in Gaza explored this further, she found that the 3,600 Christians in Gaza are not being displaced en masse and that those who do want to emigrate share the same reasons as the rest of the besieged population – a lack of opportunity in the Strip due to the Israeli blockade.

The Jerusalem Post article said the persecution of Christians is being perpetrated by a number of Islamic groups and referred to it as "part of a larger process of Islamization taking place in Palestinian society."

Fadi Bandali, a Christian living in the Gaza Strip, told MENASSAT that the Jerusalem Post story is simply not true. "The Christians here are not suffering under anyone in particular. On the contrary, all Christians live here without fear and we practice our rituals freely without anyone interfering."

"Christians in Gaza do not think about leaving the Strip for the reasons stated in the media. Those who do think about emigrating do it for the same reasons most other young people do — because of the embargo, the bad economic situation and the lack of job opportunities," Bandali said.

No problems with Hamas

According to a poll released last week by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 40% of people in the Gaza wish to leave.

Bandali told MENASSAT that the Jerusalem Post article could be an attempt to weaken the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Palestine.

"There are a lot of people who are trying to disrupt the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Gaza. Despite the events that happened against Christians in Gaza before, the relationship did not deteriorate. In fact, it is at its best," Bandali said.

He said that the Christians have not faced any problems with Hamas’ government in the Gaza Strip, who have been in control of the region for one year and a half.

"There is constant communication between us and Hamas and there is no interference by the party, not in our daily rituals and certainly not in our religious practices."

Afraid to speak out?

The Jerusalem Post also quoted an article by the columnist Abd Al-Nasser Al-Najjar of the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam. In his article, Najjar wrote about Christian-owned properties in the West Bank, specifically in Bethlehem, Ramallah and al-Bireh, that are being confiscated by high-ranking people, including military personnel and powerful families.

In a phone call with Al-Najjar, the journalist told MENASSAT that the Christians of Gaza are getting harassed, but they cannot admit it because they are a minority in the region. Najjar is now working on an article about Christians leaving the Strip but says he does not have enough information to publish it yet.

"I hear a lot about what happens behind the scenes in Gaza but I don't want to talk about it until I have real evidence. I don't want things to get more severe, like the case in Egypt where there is already a strong sectarian divide."

On the other hand, Father Manuel Musallem, the head of Gaza's Latin Church said that the mass Christian emigration doesn't exist at all. 

"The issue of some Christians leaving Palestine is not a phenomenon because it's only normal that some people leave due to the economic situation."

Asked if he was afraid to say that this emigration is politically motivated, Father Musallem strongly denied any fear of speaking out. He said the Christian-Muslim relations in Gaza are excellent, and refused to call the few departures of Christians from the Strip a political emigration.

"It is simply an economical emigration," he said.