February 15, 2009 Volume 22, Number 23
Global Report: Christians play humanitarian role in Gaza
By Geoffrey Johnston | Special to ChristianWeek
Two Palestinian boys play on a wall in Hebron, West Bank. PHOTO: COURTESY ELCIC
At the outset of last month's war in the Gaza Strip, Carl Hetu recalls seeing a television news report that showed Israeli soldiers and Hamas fighters praying for victory in battle.
In contrast, the Christians of Gaza "prayed for peace," says Hetu, the national secretary of the Canadian wing of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), a papal agency for humanitarian relief and pastoral support.
He believes that Christians in Gaza have a special mission: "to pray for peace and play a humanitarian role."
But in the near future, there might not be enough Christians left in Gaza to carry out that mission. Of the 1.5 million people in the Gaza Strip, only an estimated 3,000 are Christian. Most are Greek Orthodox; approximately 300 are Roman Catholic and 200 belong to the Baptist Church.
According to the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace--a branch of Caritas Internationalis, the Catholic Church's international development network--Gaza's Christian population "seems to be diminishing quickly."
"That is mostly because they have better economic opportunities abroad, and many have family that will host them should they leave Gaza," says Eleonore Fournier-Tombs, the communications officer for the Catholic charity.
Not so long ago, relations between Christians and Muslims in the Israeli occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank were relatively placid. But that changed in June 2007 when Hamas, a militant Islamist movement, took control of Gaza, ousting the secular Fatah organization.
Since then, says Hetu, Gaza has been undergoing a process of "Islamization." And this has forced Christians there to become even more careful in the practice of their faith.
Not everyone agrees with that assessment. "I was in Gaza in June 2007, a few days after Hamas had expelled Fatah militants from Gaza," says Father Robert Assaly, who served as both the regional director of the Middle East Council of Churches in Jerusalem as well as the Anglican vicar for Gaza in the 1990s. And he maintains that there is no Christian-Muslim rift in Gaza.
"I am not aware of tensions between Christians and Muslims in Gaza, except [for] a few evangelical Christians, who are equally in tension with the historic Christian community," says the Anglican priest, who is pursuing a doctorate in religious studies at McGill University in Montreal.
But Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), an international Catholic charity that gives pastoral support to persecuted and needy churches, reports that relations between Gaza's Muslim majority and Christian minority have deteriorated in recent years.
With the rise of Hamas in Gaza, states an ACN report entitled Persecuted and Forgotten?, "the problem of [Islamist] extremism suddenly intensified, sparking more attacks on minorities, not the least Christians."
Bible store murder
But it was the brutal slaying of Rami Ayyad, the manager of the Bible Society bookstore, that sent a shock wave of horror through the Christian community in Gaza. Islamist militants had accused him of "Christian proselytism," an accusation that often carries deadly consequences in the Islamist world.
An active Baptist, Ayyad endured the firebombing of Gaza's one and only Christian bookstore six months before he was kidnapped, tortured and shot to death.
"Gaza's Christians," says Fournier-Tombs, "have been impacted as much as the Muslims" by the fighting between Israel and Hamas. "Gaza is fairly small, so it seems that no one has been really immune to the violence."
Father Assaly, who opposes Israel's occupation and/or blockade of the Palestinian territories, says "the recent invasion [of Gaza] is an attack on Palestinians, Christian and Muslim."
While the political and diplomatic issues surrounding the war are complicated, one thing is clear: The people of Gaza are in dire need of humanitarian assistance from the Christian world.
"Even though there were some attacks from isolated groups [against Christians in Gaza]," says Hetu, "it is important that people from Canada and North America and Europe still give through Christian organizations over there."
The traditional churches in Gaza (Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox) do not actively convert Muslims.
However, Hetu says Christian organizations that help people in need, regardless of religion, still bring "the message of Jesus by caring for fellow people that are in deep trouble, that are victims of war and circumstances."
Is that subtle message of Christian compassion getting through to Gaza's Muslims?
"We have had no reports of violence or intimidation towards our staff," answers Fournier-Tombs. "The Muslim population recognizes that they benefit greatly from Caritas services, which do not discriminate according to religious or ethnic background, and are targeted towards those that are the most in need."
In addition to rushing emergency aid to the war-ravaged Palestinian territory, many churches and Christian organizations provide ongoing humanitarian assistance to Gaza.
For example, both CNEWA Canada and KAIROS, an ecumenical Christian coalition, work with the Near East Council of Churches, which brings together Gaza's Christian community to deliver food aid, operate schools and health clinics.
Unfortunately, a Christian-funded family health clinic was destroyed in last month's fighting, leaving thousands of women and children without medical care.
Although Hetu predicts that the Christians who are currently running the clinics, schools and various other social services in Gaza will stay, he isn't sure that there will be many Christians left there in 10 years.
If the ruling Hamas regime becomes too weak to effectively govern Gaza, other more radical groups will attempt to impose their violent agendas on the population. "We might end up with a situation like in Iraq, where the most vulnerable, the Christians, will be at the hands of the extremists," says Hetu.
"If that happens, clearly the Christians won't be able to stay."
Geoffrey P. Johnston is a freelance writer based in Kingston, Ontario.