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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Broken crucifixes and shards from a Jesus statue have been swept up, but Gaza's tiny Christian community says the violent warning sent by Islamic militants cannot be erased.
The ransacking of Gaza's Catholic convent and an adjacent Rosary Sisters school during Hamas' sweep to power this month broke more than wood and plaster: it signaled the end of a relatively peaceful, even if sometimes uneasy relationship between Gaza's 1.4 million Muslims and 3,000 Christians.
Despite Hamas promises of protection, Christians fear more attacks, and some say they want to leave. Gaza's flock has already been hit hard by emigration in recent years, and a new exodus could effectively wipe out one of the Arab world's tiniest and oldest Christian communities.
"We don't trust them (Hamas). Our time is coming," said a Greek Orthodox Christian who in the current climate of fear asked not to be identified.
No one has claimed responsibility for the damage, and Hamas vehemently denied involvement.
However, signs point to Muslim extremists rather than ordinary vandals. A statue and picture of the Virgin Mary - who is held in high esteem by Muslims - were left untouched.
In a Monday meeting with Catholic priest Manuel Musalam, deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas promised to find the perpetrators. However, he played down the attack, referring only to damage to the school, not the convent.
Assailants struck toward the end of Hamas' 5-day battle against rival Fatah forces for control of Gaza. The school and convent are close to a pro-Fatah security compound besieged by Hamas fighters, who pounded it with rockets and mortars. The compound was overrun on the last day of fighting, June 14.
The destruction was discovered a day later.
In the convent's chapel, two wooden crosses were found broken, another golden cross twisted out of place. The face of a ceramic statue of Jesus was smashed and prayer books littered the floor.
Three nuns living in the convent were on vacation, said deputy school principal Hanadi Missak. A rocket slammed into a bedroom, scorching walls. However, other areas appeared deliberately burned by setting fire to curtains.
The school's administrative computers and laptops were stolen. Missak said Hamas officials have returned the stolen computers, but didn't explain where they found them.
Missak suggested the vandals were acting on their own. "They were ignorant people. They don't represent all Muslims," Missak said.
Other Christians blamed Hamas for the destruction - at the least for not preventing it after taking over the security stronghold. One woman said only Hamas militants could enter the convent during the fighting, when Gaza's civilians were pinned down in their homes.
The attack marked a watershed for Gaza's Christians, crushing the belief that a shared Palestinian identity would always override Muslim-Christian differences.
Bernard Sabella, a researcher who has conducted surveys among Palestinian Christians, said the problem needs to be dealt with urgently because it tears at the fabric of Palestinian society. "People think seriously about migrating after such sectarian acts," he said.
Christians have held a unique place in Gaza's society as respected members of the territory's small elite, running schools, hospitals and businesses. Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, courted Christians, assigning them top posts in government and his Fatah movement.
Hamas too, is mindful of Palestinian Christians. The deposed Hamas government included a Christian Cabinet minister, and a prominent Gaza Christian, Hussam al-Tawil, was elected to parliament on the Hamas slate.
In September, after extremists hurled several pipe bombs at the Greek Orthodox Church following an uproar over Pope Benedict XVI's comments about Islam, Hamas' militia protected the church.
Many were shaken at the time, but optimistic about relations with their Muslim neighbors.
But the tone has changed: eight Greek Orthodox congregants, meeting in a church rectory after Sunday services, agreed to discuss their concerns, but on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
"We don't know what's coming, and I don't trust them (Hamas)," said one woman. "So far they aren't doing anything to us. But I don't know how sincere their intentions are or how long this will last."
Another said she's been harassed for not wearing a headscarf.
There haven't been any attacks on Christians since the ransacking, but many said they feared it was simply a matter of time.
Ghada Tarazi, a benevolent society director, said she was optimistic - Hamas gunmen treated her politely when they came to her home recently, looking for looted items.
But others fear a way of life is ending.
"Many Christians) say the easiest thing is to migrate if they can't feel safe," Sabella said. "But if we all leave, what is left for the nation?"
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