England and Wales Catholic leader’s visit to the Gaza Strip on Sunday was an encouragement to the territory’s 1,200 remaining Christians who comprise less than 1 percent of the enclave’s 1.8 million population.
This community, in the land of Jesus’ birth, once numbered 3,000, but has been rapidly dwindling due to emigration.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols first visited Gaza in 2014, his first year in office, expressing concern for the victims of the 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas which took place over 50 days and resulted in the deaths of 2,200 Palestinians and 66 Israelis.
During Sunday’s mass at the Holy Family Church he praised believers for their strong faith in the midst of extremely challenging circumstances and prayed for the community’s protection.
“Every time I visit this place, I am greatly encouraged: I have great admiration for the way the Christian community lives here,” Nichols said.
In his early career, the priest, who originally wanted to be a truck driver, stood up for the poor in Liverpool and for victims of child abuse within the Catholic Church. Now in the highest role in the Catholic Church in the UK, he has developed an active interest in the affairs of Gaza’s most marginalized religious community – a population that a majority of Christian Palestinians accuse the wider church of neglecting while focusing instead on Jews and Zionism.
As a religious minority, Christians in Gaza are subject to a myriad of complex issues in the coastal enclave. They are in the same line of fire as the majority Muslim population in the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Hamas, at times, has occupied Christian homes when firing at Israeli forces in order to draw return fire on those homes. Christians have also been imprisoned for eating publicly during Ramadan. In 2012, five Christian schools in Gaza were closed down for being mixed-gender – the only mixed schools in Gaza. Arson, kidnappings and and forced conversions led to public protests by the Christian community in 2012.
“Though Christians are largely tolerated by Islamist Hamas, the rights of Christians are neither upheld nor protected in Gaza,” reported Open Doors, an organization that supports persecuted Christians. “Apart from this discrimination, Christians face threats from radical Islamic vigilante groups.”
Gaza has only one evangelical church, the 200-member strong Gaza Baptist Church. In June 2007, one of the church’s members became the first known Christian martyr there. After closing up the Bible Society one evening, Rami Khader Ayyad was kidnapped, whisked away in a car, and the next day his corpse was left riddled with gunshot wounds and signs of torture. The book store itself was firebombed. He was survived by his wife, Pauline, and three children. Hamas promised to investigate the crimes, but said no group claimed responsibility and so the perpetrators could not be brought to justice.
Muslims who have converted to Christianity are even more vulnerable to persecution. Former terrorist, known as “Arafat’s butcher,” Tass Abu Saada, knows of Muslim converts in Gaza who he says must remain in deep hiding. Abu Saada himself no longer resides there.
In short, Gazan Christians are caught between a rock and a hard place. Their full expression of faith, culture and theology can cost them their lives. Some commentators, such as Francesca Giovannini of the University of California Berkeley and Arab Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, have described the “Talibanization” of Gaza.
Justus Reid Weiner, lawyer and scholar at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, argues that the future of the Christian community hangs in the balance, especially if a Palestinian state is formed.
“Palestinian statehood may well lead to the creation of another Muslim state where minorities are brutally persecuted until additional major segments of them emigrate,” Weiner wrote. “The treatment and fate of the Palestinian Christians is a litmus test of the true nature of Palestinian rule.”
The visit of a British Cardinal was both encouraging to the Christians there, and biblical:
“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” Hebrews 13:3
Open Doors calls the church to pray:
- For Christians in the Palestinian territories to shine as lights in the midst of the conflict;
- For Christians living out their faith in utmost secrecy in Gaza for fear of repercussions;
- That pressure to convert to Islam would be used to strengthen the faith of Christians.