A somber Christmas for Gaza's Christians

The Baltimore Sun

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Not so long ago, Christmas was a holiday for more than the Gaza Strip's scattering of Christians.

City officials hung ornaments and lights on a cypress tree in Gaza's main square and gave government workers the day off. On Christmas Eve, recalls Mona Qubrosy, a practicing Roman Catholic, hundreds of people, Christian and Muslim alike, would sit together in the pews of Gaza's only Catholic church for midnight Mass.

But this Christmas season, Gaza's Christian community will be reminded of what a tiny minority they are.

There will be no city Christmas tree. No public holiday, either. Qubrosy's husband, a schoolteacher, must work on Dec. 25. Her son, one of four Christians enrolled at Gaza's Islamic University, is scheduled on Christmas Day to take a final exam on the life of the Prophet Mohammad. Because of security concerns, the midnight Mass will be held at 7 p.m.

"People want to celebrate but they cannot because of what's going on. We have to show solidarity with the Muslims. The other families are not happy so we can't be either," said Qubrosy.

During the past six years of violence in the Middle East conflict, the Christmas season has been marked by muted celebrations among the Palestinian Christians. In Bethlehem, the traditional place of Jesus' birth now penned in by Israel's separation barrier, city officials are again anticipating a poor turnout at festivities planned on Manger Square.

In Gaza, the mood is even more somber after a year that has brought Israeli military sieges, a debilitating economic boycott against the Hamas-led government and escalating violence between rival Palestinian political factions that many residents fear may devolve into all-out civil war.

For Gaza's Christians, the situation is complicated by their precarious position as a shrinking minority in an increasingly conservative Muslim majority.

Historically, relations between Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land have been good, and many Christians and Muslims say they've been drawn closer by the struggle against the Israeli occupation.

But in the past year, their interfaith ties have been shaken by flare-ups of violence directed at Christians by some extremist groups and individuals. When a Dutch newspaper printed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad earlier this year, sparking outrage among many Muslims, explosives were placed outside the meeting hall of a Baptist Bible study group and a group of Catholic nuns received death threats.

After Pope Benedict XVI's controversial speech about Islam in September, Gaza's 1,400-year-old Greek Orthodox church was hit by homemade explosives, keeping many worshipers away out of fear.

Since the election of the Islamic Hamas movement, some Christian women have begun covering their heads with scarves like their Muslim counterparts so they can better fit into Gaza's increasingly conservative society.

"As Christians, sometimes you struggle concerning your identity," says the Rev. Hanna Massad, pastor of Gaza Baptist Church, which has about 200 members, "Are you Christian first or are you Palestinian first? How can you balance who you are? You have the occupation so you are like other Muslim people, and on the other hand some militant Muslims don't like it if you live your faith so you don't have the freedom to share or live your faith completely."

The number of Christians in the Middle East has been in sharp decline over the last century because of low birth rates, emigration, and in some countries, persecution. There are believed to be about 50,000 Christians living in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, making up about 2 percent of the Palestinian population.

In Gaza, there are about 3,000 Christians - mainly Greek Orthodox but also some Roman Catholics and Baptists - living among a largely conservative Muslim population of 1.4 million people.

The Rev. Manuel Musallam, the only Catholic priest in Gaza, who ministers to a flock of about 200 people, insists that there are no divisions between Muslims and Christians in Gaza. He dismisses the tensions of the past year as the work of a few extremists.

"Christians in Palestine are not a segregated community pushed into a corner," he said during an interview at his office in the Holy Family School in Gaza City. "They are not foreigners. With Muslims, they form one body. The suffering of Muslims is the suffering of Christians, and suffering of Christians is the suffering of Muslims."

Pointing out the window to the Catholic school's playground, he says that just 100 of the school's 650 students are Christians. The rest are Muslim. At Christmastime, a Muslim often volunteers to dress up as Santa Claus and passes out gifts to all children, he said.

Likewise, Christian families living far from Gaza City worship at mosques from time to time when they can't make it to church, he said.

During the controversy over the Pope's speech on Islam, Musallam, demonstrating his solidarity with Muslims, was openly critical of the speech, afraid it would damage relations between Muslims and Christians.

Some observers say the close interfaith ties may unravel if Gaza continues to evolve as a Muslim cultural, social and religious enclave, making Christians feel isolated.

"That is really a major concern," said Bernard Sabella, a sociologist and member of the Middle East Council of Churches in Jerusalem who has studied Palestinian Christians. "When you are not open to the world and surrounded by borders and you can't go in and out, you are going to stagnate culturally."

He added: "The small Christian community, in my opinion, will in a sense be affected very, very badly because ... you are not going to really have an open society."

Since the Hamas-led government took office in March, it has been very sensitive to the Christian population and has been eager to offer its support whenever it can, condemning the attacks against Christian churches and donating $50,000 for Christmas decorations in Bethlehem.

Mona Qubrosy and her family reflect the interwoven lives of Christians and Muslims in Gaza. Her parents fled Jaffa in Israel during the 1948 war. Today, the family lives in an apartment in Gaza's Christian camp, a tiny enclave of about 25 families.

The are no Christmas decorations outside her apartment, but in the corner of the living room stands a small Christmas tree with flashing lights. On the coffee table, she displays a battery-powered Santa Claus that plays a drum set surrounded by images of snowmen and wreaths - all purchased from the back room of a Muslim-run imported goods store in Gaza City.

On Christmas Eve she plans to have a quiet family holiday and serve stuffed chicken and kebabs before attending Mass at the Holy Family Church, where on a recent Sunday morning armed guards stood at the entrance.

Qubrosy says she feels at home in Gaza, although she has made adjustments since the Hamas movement came to power and many Gazans have become more devout Muslims.

"I keep a headscarf in my bag. I don't put it on when I'm downtown. I just wear it in conservative areas," she says. "I just want to avoid having someone say something to me."

Most of Qubrosy's friends are Muslim. One of her four children, son Karam, is a student at the Hamas-run Islamic University, where he is studying accounting but also must take Islamic history and law and other religious courses. He also has grown a beard, as is fashionable among religious Muslims. "The professors like the students who grow beards," he says.

Like many young Christians, however, Karam, is eager to go to school and eventually find work abroad, a fact that is troubling for Musallam and other Christian leaders.

"We want them to remain, but the bad economic situation is pushing out Muslims and Christians," said Musallam, who plans to open a Catholic university in Gaza to encourage more Christians to stay.

But with their numbers so low already, each Christian who flees Gaza leaves many of those who remain to wonder how long their tiny community can survive.

"The Christians in the Middle East are dwindling. They may also disappear in the next 50 to 100 years," says Atallah Mansour, an Arab Christian from Nazareth and an authority on Christians in the Middle East.

But, he adds, hopefully, " I won't say that because I believe in miracles. I believe somewhere, somehow maybe someone upstairs will say, 'Don't go away. This is your land.' "

jmurphy@baltsunnews.com

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