Friday, October 26, 2007

Alan Johnston tells of his kidnapping

It had begun out in the spring sunshine, on the streets of Gaza City. A saloon car had suddenly surged past mine, and then pulled up, forcing me to stop. A young man emerged from the passenger side and pointed a pistol at me. The figure with the pistol and another gunman forced me into their car, and as we sped off I was made to lie on the back seat. A hood had been shoved over my face, but through it I could see the sun flickering between the tower blocks. I could tell that we were heading south and east, towards the city’s rougher neighbourhoods.

Late on the first night of my captivity, the door opened. Its frame was filled by a tall figure in a long white robe. He stood for a moment, looking down at me – swathed in a red-chequered headdress that completely masked his face. The Jihadi leader had arrived. “Alan Johnston,” he said in English. “We know everything.”

Mostly the voice emerging from the mask was calm, and even kindly. He said that I would not be killed. That I would be treated well, in keeping with Islamic codes of conduct towards prisoners. Crucially, he said that I would eventually be allowed to leave. I asked when, but he just said, “when the time is right.”

Read on

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."