Friday, October 26, 2007

An authentic telling of Rami's death

AFP- The kidnapping and killing of Rami Ayyad, manager of the Gaza Strip's only Christian bookstore, sent shudders through the Palestinian coastal enclave's tiny Christian community.

Spared by the summer's fierce factional clashes in which the Islamist Hamas movement seized power by routing their secular Fatah party rivals, Christians began to worry they too might be driven from the volatile coastal strip.

What scares them is a new generation of shadowy extremist movements that have crept from the rubble of a seven-year uprising, months of internal bloodletting and decades of conflict with Israel.

"We are not afraid of Hamas because as a government they are responsible for protecting people," Ayyad's brother Ramzi says. "We are afraid of those who are more extreme than Hamas."

Palestinian Christians number around 75,000 but there are only 2,500 -- most of them Greek Orthodox -- living in the Gaza Strip among nearly 1.5 million Muslims, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

Gaza has no history of tensions between the two communities and Christians say they are bound to their Muslim neighbours by shared suffering.

But fears peaked on October 6 when Ayyad was kidnapped, tortured and shot dead, his body dumped in a field outside Gaza City. No one has claimed responsibility for the murder.

Ayyad ran a bookshop affiliated with the United Bible Societies, a worldwide organisation that tries to help people "receive the Word of God and see the true light in Jesus Christ", according to its website.

The shop -- the only Christian bookstore in Gaza -- was firebombed in April, and Ayyad's family members said he was threatened several times.

"Three months before Rami was killed a man came into the office," Ayyad's mother told AFP. "He said to Rami, 'What do think about converting to Islam?'"

"Rami said, 'If you convert to Christianity, I'll become a Muslim.' Then the man said, 'I know how to make you a Muslim'. It was a threat."

The Hamas-run government has vowed to find and punish Ayyad's killers, and senior Hamas leader Mahmud Zahar and former prime minister Ismail Haniya attended his wake, along with several of the family's Muslim neighbours.

But many Christians, frightened of the new extremist groups and desperate to escape the worsening economic situation in the Gaza Strip, are seeking to emigrate, sparking fears for the future of the community.

The beleaguered coastal strip has been largely cut off from the rest of the world since March 2006, when Hamas -- which Israel and the West consider a terrorist group -- emerged victorious in Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Israel tightened the blockade after the Islamists, who refuse to recognise the Jewish state, seized complete control four months ago, cutting the territory off from all but vital goods and threatening further measures.

"Christians are isolated just like Muslims. They are scared just like Muslims," says Father Manuel Musallam, the head of Gaza's 200-strong Catholic community, his lips trembling with anger against Israel.

On a breezy Sunday morning around 50 people gathered in the Catholic Church of the Holy Family for a weekly mass.

In a rousing sermon, Musallam -- an ardent Palestinian nationalist from the West Bank who Israel has only allowed out of the Gaza Strip twice since he assumed his post in 1995 -- called on his weary flock to remain strong.

"The Church has always been under threat, and it has always endured. Rami was not the first martyr and in the life of the Church he will not be the last," he said, his soaring baritone voice echoing off the stone walls.

"To those who are scared, to those who want to flee Gaza, we must open our hearts, our doors, and our pockets... And we must always remember the sacrifice of Christ on the cross."

Many Christians defend Gaza's record.

"I hate discrimination, and here there is no discrimination between Christians and Muslims," Musa Saba says as he sits in the quiet courtyard of the Gaza City Young Men's Christian Association, playing dominos with friends.

The spry 81-year-old Greek Orthodox was one of the founding members of the association in 1952, two years before the Egyptian government, which then controlled the Gaza Strip, granted the land on which it now stands.

Today the YMCA provides a rare recreational haven for the residents of Gaza City. In the 1980s and 1990s Hamas held party elections here, and the vast majority of the young people who play on the outdoor courts are Muslims.

"There are very few Christians in Gaza but they live right next to us on our streets. They live exactly as we do, with the same habits, the same customs," says Ban al-Hussein, a Muslim university student sitting nearby.

But if their small numbers have helped the Christians better blend in among their Muslim neighbours, it has also given rise to rivalries between different denominations.

Many in the Catholic and Orthodox communities believe Ayyad and his book store were targeted, not for being Christian, but because they were carrying out missionary activities aimed at Christians and Muslims alike.

"There are many different armed groups in the Gaza Strip, but they are not interested in fighting Christians. What happened (to Ayyad) was an exception, because of the silliness of the Baptists," Saba says.

But Hanna Massad, the pastor of Gaza City's main Baptist Church, insists the Bible Society in Gaza is primarily focused on charity, providing aid to Christians and Muslims, and offering free courses in computers and English.

"Here in Gaza, if someone wants to buy a Bible he can. If they ask for one we will provide it. But we don't force books on anyone and we don't try to convert people," Massad says.

Massad, like others, blames Ayyad's death on the rise of extremist groups bourne by the chaos in Gaza and the rest of the region in recent years.

"The extremist groups have started to appear in the last six years because of the political atmosphere in the Middle East and because of the economic blockade of our country," he says.

As the situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate, with Israel declaring it a "hostile entity" last month and hinting at launching a major operation, Christians and Muslims are, together, preparing for the worst.

"After (Rami's murder) 70 percent of Christians want to leave Gaza, because they are very afraid," Ramzi says. "But we love Gaza, it's our country, we have roots here, homes here. We will not know anyone if we go somewhere else."


abu jihad said...

i am from gaza, there is absolutely no normal, true Muslim who harbors any hate towards a Christian whether a fellow Palestinian, Lebanese or other.

Let's not fall into the trap of the Crusaders and Zionists who can easily buy not only people but nations to stir animosity and hatred amongst us.

As long as Christians don't try to be immoral in public and affect the public decency then we are brothers and we have a duty to protect them and treat them as equals.

If only they could stop drinking, flirting, mixing, and going out naked and having more self respect for themselves and their women folk. Because humans are humans, they are influencing Muslim youth and they are growing up behaving like animals, without shame or honor.

I think once Christians can go back to their religion and realize that at its core is decency and morality. Let them look at how Mary, as, is portrayed! where is her example among the christians today?

or did Jesus die on the cross for their sins, so let the immorality reign and let their be no feeling of shame and guilt?


Jesus is free from all they attribute to him, Jesus and his mother were moral, decent human beings. Mary was the most pure of the people in this life! She is truly an example for humanity!

Once Christians help their Muslim brothers upkeep the morality preached by Jesus and Mary then we can see eye to eye.

Why don't we hear Arab Christians criticize the Crusaders? or do they feel a loyalty towards them? I'm not talking about church leaders, but the ordinary man and woman on the street.

Or is it ok for the Crusaders to kill and rape our people? Do the Arab christians hate their Muslim brothers that much! I hope not.

I really feel that the gap between us is not one of theology but of morality. Personally, I want to live a clean, decent and moral life myself. When i want to mix with my Christian friends, it is very difficult. I do not want to see his wife or daughter half naked in the same room with them and alone sometimes. I do not want to be around them when they drink or smoke or use filthy language. I do not want them to flirt with my family and friends. I do not want their priests to rape little boys. I do not want them to go out naked, i do not want them to wear bikinis in public. All these things affect not only Muslims but God-fearing Christians as well. They are a minority but they do exist and they share most of these manners with Muslims.

Anonymous said...

My dear man, I think you are suffering from ontological insecurity. Whereas I can agree with you that some practices in Western society are less than modest, immorality stems from barbarous acts like the hanging of young girls in Iran for not wearing a head scaft - not from girls wearing bikinis. And that is what is so disturbing about your post, you claim that Christians will be okay IF they do what you say. When since did the murder of people you don't agree with become a virtue!

Rana said...

marHaba abu jihad,
i am Christian Palestinian. Jesus did not die on the cross for our sins so that we might cover up our swim suits or look down when a man speaks or any other reason of morality or decency. i can dress like a muslim in an abaya apart from Christ, i can even stare at the ground when a man speaks apart from Christ, i can abstain from drinking alcohol and eating pork apart from Christ. but what can not do is live eternally with God apart from Christ. Christianity is not about morality or cultural transformation, although there are certainly people who believe it is.

i think you are right about Christians, Muslims and Jews even living peacefully with respecting each other's differences. that also means you don't impose your lifestyle preference on me and i don't impose mine on you or your family.


Dave said...

I have just read about Rami in a prayer letter which called for prayer for his wife, Pauline and other Christians of Gaza.
I was angry to read about the murder and so went to "Google" to find out more.
It was pleasing to read of the local community's concern and hope that all care is being extended to the family amidst the hardships that the Gaza people suffer.

Reading, however, Abu jihad's comments about "Christian immorality" reminds me that here in Australia, we were told at the time of the first Iraq war, that "All Moselms are not Arabs -and all Arabs are not Moslem." Thus
All Christians are not Westerners and all Westerners (and by extention -decadent western behaviour) are not Christian - Further, all "Christians" are not true born-again followers of Jesus Christ.
Our prayers remember you...