An excavator operates at the site where ancient ruins, which archaeologists say may be part of a Byzantine church or cathedral dating from around 1,500 years ago, were found in Gaza City April 4, 2016. .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian Christians on Wednesday expressed anger over the way the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have handled the ancient ruins of a Byzantine church that were uncovered in Gaza City last week.
They said that bulldozers removed the antiquities and continued with their work without supervision. They accused the two big Palestinian parties of seeking to obliterate Christian history and identity in the Holy Land.
Construction workers found the remains of the 1,500-yearold church in Palestine Square in Gaza City, where a shopping mall is being built.
“Our first thought is that the site is a cathedral or a church from the Byzantine period,” said Jamal Abu Rida, head of the PA Antiquities Ministry, according to Reuters.
Although the ministry has great interest in preserving the remains, it lacks the means to do so, he said.
“The site we are talking about is 2,000 square meters and 10-meters deep and requires hundreds of workers and millions of dollars to carry out proper excavation to extract pieces and read the texts,” Abu Rida added, noting that his ministry has only 40 excavation workers.
The construction work is being carried in an area that is under the control of Hamas.
That is why some of the criticism is also being directed against the Hamas authorities in the Gaza Strip. Sources in the Gaza said that the Wakf (Islamic trust) Ministry in the Strip was responsible for the construction.
Some Palestinian Christians claimed that the construction workers moved the remains of the church out of their way and continued work at the site.
“They used bulldozers to remove the antiquities and no one ordered a freeze of the construction work at this important archeological site,” said Father Ibrahim Nairouz, a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem who lives in Nablus.
“Had they found the remains of a mosque or synagogue or any other ancient structure, would they have dealt with them in the same manner?” Nairouz asked. “Or are they doing this because it’s an ancient church?” His criticism came in a letter he wrote to PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and Minister of Antiquities and Tourism Rula Maa’yaa.
“It’s obvious that Christian legacy and human beings are being targeted in our region,” the priest charged.
He also accused the PA of giving Islamic names to two Christian and Jewish holy sites in Nablus – a monastery and the stairway known as the Jews’ Steps.
He and other prominent Christian figures also took issue with the PA for arresting the archbishop of the Syriac community in the Holy Land, Swerios Malki Murad.
PA policemen in Bethlehem last weekend arrested the top clergyman as he was on his way back from a celebration of Syriac heritage in the nearby village of El-Khader. He was released on bail 24 hours later.
PA prosecutors said the archbishop was arrested following a complaint lodged against him by a woman from his own community. They refused to give details about the nature of the complaint, triggering rumors that the church leader was involved in sexual assault – a claim he has vehemently denied.
Nairouz said he has decided to boycott an official tour of Bethlehem and Hebron by Hamdallah.
“Your companionship is priceless,” he wrote, addressing the PA prime minister. “But with national affection, I have decided not to participate in the tour to protest the destruction of the remains of the church in Gaza City. And I haven’t heard any official or public or private protest against this destruction.”
Many Palestinian Christians took to social media to voice support for the priest’s criticism of the PA.
“No one has the right to deny the existence of the other,” a Christian woman from Nablus wrote. “We are all brothers in this country and we are suffering and feeling the same pain as our Muslim brothers. Our history is deeply rooted in this land and anyone who thinks otherwise is mistaken. What is happening is sad.”
Suleiman Fayoumi, another Christian from Nablus, commented, “How are the Wakf officials in Gaza different from ISIS when they bulldoze antiquities and a religious and cultural treasure?” Nick Bandak of Bethlehem said it was “disgraceful” and “barbaric” to remove the remains of a church in this way.
“Are they trying to change history that has proven that Gaza was one of the ancient cities for Christians?” he asked.
“The question is, where are those who care about preserving our Christian heritage?” asked Sami Khalil. “Where are the heads of the churches in Jerusalem and the world? Where are the bishops and archbishops and what’s keeping them busy from addressing an important incident that is contributing to the obliteration of our Christian identity in the Holy Land? Where are the Vatican and UNESCO?” “This incident should be publicized so that the world would know the truth about Hamas,” said Samir Qumsieh, chairman of the United Christian Society in Bethlehem, in a post on Facebook.