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 Gaza's Christian Community

By Mohammed Omer

[Editor's Note] Responding to the 60-foot deep steel wall Egypt is building between itself and the Gaza Strip and Israel's blockade of Gaza preventing the importation of food items, medicine, and building materials, Father Manuel Musallam said, "We should remind the world that this siege is not only affecting the lives of 10 or 20 people.  It is 1.5 million Palestinians who are suffering every single day.  Any obstacle put in our face is an obstacle in the face of our liberation.  We will all die.  But we will never die as slaves to others nor in fear of American and Israeli hegemony.  We will dig deeper in the ground or go by sea. This wall will never stop our freedom."  The steel wall Egypt is building is reportedly being built with the consultation of the U. S. Army Corp of Engineers and U. S. tax dollars and is meant to stop Gazans from tunneling into Egypt to obtain blockaded items.  Israel prevents freedom of movement for Gazans.

Photo Mohammad Omer
Catholic News - Father Manuel Musallam, Holy Family Church, Gaza City

Father Manuel Musallam, Holy Family Church, Gaza City

As the sun rises in the east on the first day of Advent, the bells of Gaza’s churches fill the air, mixing amicably with the Muslim call to prayer.  There is an air of quiet serenity, spiced with excitement, as the faithful walk to their churches and mosques, the doors swinging open, and Christians and Muslims bid each other Good Morning on yet another Sunday.

Gaza’s oldest church, the Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrus, dates back to the 16th Century.  The majority of Gaza’s Christians are served by the Roman Catholic Church on Al Zayotoun Street and the Gaza Baptist Church which offer living room prayer groups, interfaith outreach, several schools, and humanitarian/medical Christian charities staffed by both locals and internationals.  Today Gaza is home to approximately 3,000 Christians, the majority of whom live near these Gaza City churches.

Until November 1947, when the U. N. General Assembly passed Resolution 181 partitioning Palestine, Palestinian Christians lived peacefully among Muslims and the small Jewish population in the area.  With the passage of the non-binding Resolution 181, however, Zionist forces began their ethnic cleansing campaign in earnest.  At the time, Christians represented 18% of Palestine’s population, with many families tracing their ancestry back to the time of Christ.  Today, Christians comprise fewer than 2% of Palestinians, with the loss of Jerusalem’s Christian community being the most profound, plunging from a peak of 51% in 1922 to just 4% today.  By the time of the Deir Yassin Massacre in early April, 1948, over a quarter-million Palestinians, many of them Christian, had been displaced; either killed or made refugees.

Like their Muslim neighbors, Christian Palestinians sought to find a safe refuge following the establishment of Israel. Because Gaza came under Egyptian rule in 1948, Palestinians of all faiths fled there.  As the Zionist militias advanced, razing entire towns, massacring families, and confiscating all property in their wake, many Christians fled to Jerusalem, a divided. yet still international city.  For a time Christians and Muslims in East Jerusalem, which was under Jordanian control, remained relatively safe.

In 1967, Israel chose to further expand its borders, attacking Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.  Within six days, all three nations had been defeated, and Israel had tripled its territory, rendering millions of Palestinians homeless or living under occupation or in Israel under martial law.  Along with its Muslim neighbors, Gaza’s small Christian community found itself imprisoned between Israel and the sea and the land swollen with additional refugees.  But Gaza’s Christians also discovered they were invisible; unacknowledged, dismissed, denounced, or forgotten by fellow Christians throughout the world especially in the United States.

The Bookseller's Murder

It is well known that one of the most effective tools for rendering a society subservient is the tactic of divide and conquer.  Thus the October kidnapping and murder of Rami Ayyad, the manager of Gaza’s only Christian bookstore, presented a dangerous challenge.  Speculations about the motive still abound: Was it a hate crime or simply a random tragedy?

Father Manuel Musallam, the senior Roman Catholic priest in Gaza, doubts the attack was religiously motivated.

“Rami was not only Christian,” the priest explained. “He was Palestinian.  Violent acts against Christians are not a phenomenon unique to Gaza.”

Immediately upon hearing of what he described as a “murderous crime,” Ismail Haniyeh, Palestine’s elected prime minister, ordered the Ministry of Interior to dispatch an investigative committee to “urgently look into the matter.”

“We are all one people who suffer together for the sake of freedom, independence, and restoration of our inalienable citizenship rights,” Haniyeh said publicly.  “We are waging a single struggle and refuse to allow any party to tamper with or manipulate this historical relationship [between Muslims and Christians].”

Muslim and Christian Students Speak

Photo Mohammad Omer
Catholic News - Recess at Holy Family School, Gaza City

Recess at Holy Family School, Gaza City

“My life is normal, and I’ve never felt oppressed,” said Ali Al Jeldah, a 17-year-old Christian student attending Holy Family School.  “Being Muslim or Christian is never an issue,” he emphasized, adding, “I have many Muslim friends.  We hang out and study together with no differences at all.”

Lelias Ali, a 16-year-old Muslim who attends Holy Family School, agrees.  “We have a unity of struggle, a unity of aim to live under the same circumstances,” she stated. “This land is for both of us, and being a Christian or Muslim should not separate us.”

“I have lots of friends,” said Diana Al Sadi, 17.  “Being Muslim or Christian is not an issue.  I go to my friend’s homes for happy and sad occasions including Christmas and Easter,” she elaborated.  “They visit mine during Eid.”

Asked if Christians in Gaza are being harassed by Hamas or the Palestinian police, all the students agreed that this is not the case.

“Every society has extremists,” Ali observed. “Like sometimes I’m criticized for not wearing my hijab.  But that has nothing to do with being Muslim or Christian.  Those people don’t represent our Palestinian society.”

Pausing for a moment to consider the international media’s portrayal of strife between Muslims and Christians, she concluded, “We should not let such ideas sneak into our minds.  If we don’t unite, then we lose.”

The Thoughts of Clergy

Father Musallam explained why Christians in Gaza do not feel singled out or oppressed.  “Palestinian Christians are not a religious community set apart in some corner.  We are part of the Palestinian people,” he asserted.  “Our relationship with Hamas is as people of one nation.  Hamas doesn’t fight religious groups.  Its fight is against the Israeli occupation.”

When asked about Western media reports that Gaza’s Christians are considering emigrating because of Islamic oppression, Father Musallam sighed.  “If Christians emigrate, it’s not because of Muslims,” he emphasized.  “It is because we suffer from the Israeli siege.  We seek a life of freedom, a life different from the life of dogs that we are currently forced to live.”

Archimandrite Artemios, the top clergyman in Gaza of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, chooses to live and minister in Gaza.  Though Greek by birth, he insists he is Palestinian by heart.  Asked what Christians in Gaza pray for given the circumstances Palestinians must live under, he replied gently, “We pray for peace, wisdom, and improvement of the situation in Gaza.”  He added that he anxiously anticipates the day when all Christians and Muslims will have free access to all parts of Palestine. “Then we’ll go together to Bethlehem and celebrate Christmas and Eid Al Adha.”

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate was not optimistic about the effect of The Annapolis Conference on Gaza’s current situation, however.  “We all know that Gaza is out of the game,” he said sadly. “I pray God will give the wisdom to President Abbas and the Israeli side to find a solution.”

As church pews and mosque prayer halls filled on the first Sunday of December, a pensive hope prevails as faith in God endures.  For in Gaza there are no Jews or Gentiles, no Muslims or Christians.  In Gaza there are only Palestinians.

*"As announced, President Bush and Secretary of State Rice look forward to hosting an international conference in Annapolis on Tuesday, November 27, 2007, focused on supporting the efforts of Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas to realize President Bush's vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security." - United States Department of State 

Mohammed Omer, winner of New America Media’s Best Youth Voice award, reports from the Gaza Strip where he maintains the Web site www.rafahtoday.org.  He can be reached at gazanews@yahoo.com.

First published in
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

[Editor's note:  After returning home to Gaza from London on June 26, 2008, where he traveled to receive the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, Mohammed Omer was questioned for four hours and strip searched at the Israeli-controlled Allenby Bridge Crossing between Jordan and Gaza.  Mr. Omer said that after the strip search and questioning, he passed out as he was being dragged by the legs by two officials with his head hitting the ground.  He woke up in a hospital in Jericho, Israel, where he called the Dutch officials who had helped with his trip to London, and the Dutch officials drove Mr. Omer to a hospital in Gaza where he was treated for several broken ribs.

Israeli officials said Mr. Omer was strip searched and questioned, "because of the suspicion that he had been in contact with hostile elements and had been asked by them to smuggle something in."   Israeli officials also said, "fair treatment and no irregular action was taken towards him.  At the end of the search, he lost his balance and fell for some reason unknown to us.  A team of medics, an ambulance and a paramedic were summoned, and he was transferred for treatment to Jericho."

Six months later, Mr. Omer was recuperating in an Amsterdam hospital for injuries sustained June 26, 2008,at the Allenby Bridge Crossing.]

Mr. Omer toured the United States for a second time in November 2009 and said Americans were more aware of the situation in Palestine then they were on his first visit.

Monsignor Manuel Musallam, Pastor of Holy Family Parish in Gaza City, returned to Holy Family after being allowed by Israel to visit his family in Bir Zeit in the West Bank in 2008 for the first time in 13 years.  Reportedly, Israel denied 600 of 900 requests of Gazans seeking permission to travel to the West Bank for Christmas in 2008 because Israel doesn't want Gazans to permanently relocate to the West Bank.  Rarely is a Permit granted to a Gazan between the ages of 17-35 to visit the West Bank.

At age 71, and after 14 years at Holy Family Parish in Gaza, Father Musallam is retiring to Ramallah in the West Bank to be with his family and friends.  "I am leaving this place forever. I am not anxious or sad. I have completed my job and my successor is in place," said Father Musallam.

Israel permitted 300 of the 3,000 Gazan Catholics to travel to Bethlehem to attend Christmas services.  Permit recipients were required to be under 16 or over 35 years of age.

Israel arrested Bethlehem University student Berlanty Azzam and is holding her in jail three months before her graduation because her legal address is in Gaza and she was attending Bethlehem University in the West Bank as Israel prevents freedom of movement by the Palestinians. Azzam is not allowed to attend her court hearing because it is being held in Israel not Gaza.

Naseem Sabbah, 21, Holy Family Parish, Gaza City, Gaza, Palestine, bombed by Israel, RIP

Ismail Zaydah/Reuters
Funeral Mass in Gaza for Christine Turk, 14, who died from unknown reasons after an Israeli missile barrage shook her home.  Christine had no visible wounds so it is thought she died from fright/heart attack

Funeral Mass celebrated by Father Manuel Musallam at Holy Family Church in Gaza City for Christine Wadee' al-Turk, 14, who died from unknown causes after an Israeli missile barrage shook her home.  Christine had no visible wounds so it is thought she died from fright/heart attack.  Christine attended Holy Family Parish School.

Father Manuel Musallam describes the aftermath of Israel's bombing of Gaza:

We are trying to come back to life, but it is really difficult.  Like everyone else, our families have also lost their homes or suffered incalculable damage. These have been terrible, shocking days.  Now it is truly difficult to return to normalcy.  We have reopened the three schools of the patriarchate, and the children have started coming back, but everything is in short supply.  One of the buildings was also bombed, and it's more difficult there than at the others.  More than anything else, these days have been an opportunity to start visiting each other again, finding out about our friends and relatives.

We are trying to help each other.  Sisters, religious, families, are doing the best they can, but we do not simply need food.  The destruction of buildings is minimal compared to what our people have suffered in their hearts.  Every form of aid is helpful, but something very different from humanitarian assistance is needed to bring back joy.  There is still the fear that from one moment to the next, Israel could begin bombing again, and the frustration of ending up being treated always as slaves."

Monsignor Manuel Musallam on thanking Aid to the Church in Need on April 30, 2009, described the situation in Gaza. 

The destruction has become deeper and deeper. Things are getting worse and worse. Many, many families are suffering.

People cannot receive electricity all the time because there is a lack of fuel to run the generators. There is a shortage of clean water, sanity is poor. Education and medical care is also not good.

Our precious trees have been uprooted. Our buildings have been destroyed. Our streets have been destroyed. Our land has been burnt by bombs, and so we cannot produce anything. We are just consumers now. The machines and cars are old. Everything needs to be renewed.

The people are more aggressive. There is a lot more hate towards the situation they are in,  especially among the young.

I am leaving this place forever. I am not anxious or sad. I have completed my job and my successor is in place.

Israeli soldiers break rank over Gaza war

Gaza refugee camps washed away in storms

Homeless Palestinians Squeeze Into Tents in Gaza

Palestinian families juggle to keep children in Catholic schools

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights counted 1,434 Gazans killed by Israel during the recent 22-day offensive including 960 civilians, 239 police officers and 235 fighters. Included as civilians were 288 children and 121 women.  "The Ministry of Health have also confirmed that a total of 5,303 Palestinians were injured in the assault including 1,606 children and 828 women," The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said. The Obama administration is giving Israel $30 billion in military aid.

Father Manuel Musallam thanked the pope for his support of Holy Family Parish in Gaza.  "The people of Gaza have lost almost everything and are now destitute after the bombing of their homes and crops.  Our children are suffering from trauma, anxiety, undernourishment, malnutrition, poverty, and a lack of heating.  The world has to find a solution for the Palestinian people and not simply revert to their previous positions. The borders with Israel must be redrawn, and the occupation, which began 60 years ago, must end.  Peace is only possible if it embraces justice.  If the world grants the Palestinian people their human rights, there will surely be peace in the Middle East."

According to the Associated Press, Israel was not allowing rebuilding materials into Gaza.

President Jimmy Carter said the United States gives Israel $10MM a day.

U. S. President Carter visited Gaza and was "distressed"

Bethlehem

Doctor in Bethlehem

Crisis in The Holy Land

Going to America by Mohammed Omer

 

 

 

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