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25 December 2008

FROM WND'S JERUSALEM BUREAU Muslim grinches steal Christmas Christians warned against celebration: 'We are living under a state of fear'

0625templemount.jpgJERUSALEM – Christians living in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip are holding only small, quiet Christmas celebrations after local leaders received warnings from Muslim groups against any public display of Christianity this holiday season, according to a Gaza Christian leader.

Publicly, some Christian leaders announced the dampened festivities were to protest an Israeli blockade imposed on Gaza after Hamas seized control of the territory in the summer of 2007. Israel limits trade convoys but still allows in humanitarian aid and directly supplies Gaza with 75 percent of its electricity. The Jewish state also provides monthly infusions of Israeli currency that fuel the Gaza economy.

Gaza Latin Church pastor Manuel Musalam faxed a statement to reporters announcing his church would not hold midnight Christmas mass to protest both the blockade and a threatened Israeli military invasion of Gaza. At least one other Christian leader in the territory made similar remarks to the media.

Still, according to local Christians, some private, low key celebrations took place.

A top Christian leader in Gaza told WND the decision to keep celebrations quiet came after he received threats from local Muslim groups against any public display of Christianity during Christmas. The leader was speaking on condition of anonymity, saying his life would be threatened if he spoke out publicly. He said the threats were conveyed to other Christian leaders in Gaza.

"We were warned not to celebrate in the streets or ring the church bells, otherwise Christians would be targeted. We are living under a state of fear," the Christian leader said.

"There is nothing we can do about the situation. We don't want to infuriate anyone," he said. 

The Christian leader would not say whether the threats were verbal or came in the form of written communication.

He said he had reason to believe the threats emanated with Jihadia Salafiya, a Hamas-allied Islamic outreach movement in Gaza that recently announced the opening of a "military wing" to enforce Muslim law. The organization, which is not directly connected to Hamas but publicly supports it, has been suspected in a string of anti-Christian attacks, including the bombing of a Christian bookstore in November 2007 and the murder of the store's manager, local Christian resident Rami Ayyad.

Contacted by WND, Abu Islam, chief of Jihadia Salafiya, denied making any threats against Christians.

Still, Abu Islam commented, "Gaza is a Muslim state. Why do 3,000 Christians need to celebrate openly in a territory of 1 million Muslims? Any celebrations are clearly for missionary purposes and must not be tolerated."

Abu Islam previously gave WND interviews under a different name, Sheik Abu Saqer. He changed his name to Abu Islam in June 2007 in celebration of Hamas' Gaza takeover.

Immediately after Hamas' Gaza coup, Abu Islam told WND in an exclusive interview Christians could continue living safely in the Gaza Strip only if they accepted Islamic law, including a ban on alcohol and on women roaming publicly without proper head coverings.

"[Now that Hamas is in power,] the situation has changed 180 degrees in Gaza," said Abu Islam, speaking from Gaza in June 2007.

"Jihadia Salafiya and other Islamic movements will ensure Christian schools and institutions show publicly what they are teaching to be sure they are not carrying out missionary activity," he said.

Abu Islam accused the Gaza Christian leadership of "proselytizing and trying to convert Muslims with funding from American evangelicals."

"This missionary activity is endangering the entire Christian community in Gaza," he warned.

Christians warned: Accept Islamic law

About 3,000 Christians live in the Gaza Strip, which has a population of over 1 million.

After Hamas' rise to power, Christian in Gaza repeatedly have been targeted. Jihadia Salafiya is suspected of many of the Islamist attacks, such as a May 2007 shooting against a United Nations school in Gaza after it allowed boys and girls to participate in the same sporting event. One person was killed in the attack.

In the case of Ayyad, who managed the only Christian bookstore in Gaza, his body was discovered riddled with gunshot and stab wounds. Just before his murder, Ayyad, a Baptist, was publicly accused by Abu Islam's group of engaging in missionary activities. Ayyad's bookstore, owned by the Palestinian Bible Society, was firebombed in April 2007, after which he told relatives he received numerous death threats from Islamists.

WND quoted witnesses stating Ayyad was publicly tortured a few blocks from his store before he was shot to death.

The witnesses said they saw three armed men, two of whom were wearing masks, beat Ayyad repeatedly with clubs and the butts of their guns while they accused him of attempting to spread Christianity in Gaza. The witnesses said that after sustaining the beating, Ayyad was shot by all three men.


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