In Islamic stronghold, Christmas carries on

Gaza’s tiny community says Hamas puts no crimp on holiday spirit.

Christians at Church of Nativity 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad )
Christians at Church of Nativity 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad )
GAZA CITY – Gathered around an elaborately decorated tree with a manger scene close by,  the Farah family spent Christmas day like hundreds of millions of others around the world with friends and family, attending mass, exchanging gifts and enjoying a hearty meal.
But the Farahs celebrated their Christmas in the Gaza Strip, a place ruled by the fundamentalist Islamic movement Hamas, blockaded by Israel and conventionally regarded as a place inhospitable to Christians and their faith. Yet, the Farahs and others in Gaza’s tiny Christian community say appearances are deceiving.
RELATED:Christmas in Saudi Arabia: Cheerful but chaste“My children played and celebrated Christmas all day yesterday among the other Christian children at the Latin Patriarchate School, which held activities for Christmas celebrations,” Essam Farah, who works as an administrative assistant in Gaza’s Union of Churches in Gaza, told The Media Line. “We then went to dinner at one of Gaza’s best restaurants before ending the night with the mass at the Latin Patriarchate church.”
Christians are a tiny and dwindling minority throughout the Holy Land, which comprises Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. But in Gaza their numbers are the smallest of all and shrinking more quickly than elsewhere. The government says there are between 2,000 and 3,000 Christians among a population of 1.8 million Muslims.
In recent years, there is no longer a Christmas tree in Gaza City’s main square. When the Latin Patriarch Fuad Tawl arrived last week to address his flock before the holiday, authorities kept the media away.
But Christians say they are free to practice their faith and say the incidents that do occur, such as the 2007 killing of Rami Khader Ayyad, the owner of Gaza’s only Christian bookstore, and an arson attack a year later on the local YMCA are isolated instances of individuals or extremist groups, not a reflection of official Hamas policy. The banning of the media for the patriarch’s visit they say was intended for his comfort, because Israel had given him only five hours to visit Gaza from his home in the West Bank.
 “Christians in Gaza aren’t a minority. We should stop saying that. We live our life freely here, we experience equality and we have never suffered from religious racism before or even now. Hamas doesn’t oppress or attack Christians,” Elias Jelda, a Christian activist, told The Media Line.
Among the Palestinians freed in the prisoner swap with Israel in exchange for hostage solider Gilad Shalit was Chris Bandak, a 32-year-old Christian, originally from the West Bank, but who settled in Gaza after being barred from returning. “Christmas always means family gatherings, and its times like this when I miss my family the most and I hurt inside for not being able to be with them,” he said. Nevertheless, Bandak said he was heartened by seeing his fellow Christians celebrating Christmas freely in Gaza.
Ayman Abu Hasna, the Muslim owner of a Gaza gift shop, said he displays Christmas merchandise every December. “Many Christians come to shop here and many Muslims also come so they can pick gifts to their Christian friends when they visit them on Christmas,” Ayman told The Media Line. He said he was never pressured by Hamas to lower his profile or stop selling Christmas products.
“You’ll find many shops and stores in Gaza selling Christmas merchandise and nobody stops them,” Abu Hasna said. “Even restaurants and cafes here put up Christmas ornaments and lights throughout December to show our Christian brothers and sisters that we care. Hamas never stopped them either. If Hamas oppress Christians and Christmas then how come I can sell Christmas stuff and Gaza’s restaurants and cafes can place Christmas ornaments?”
A U.S. State Department annual report on global religious freedom, which was released last September, says Hamas had “largely tolerated” the small Christian community in Gaza and does not force Christians to abide by Islamic  law. But it does assert that Christians face “discrimination and threats” from Muslim vigilante groups. Hamas has not sufficiently investigated or prosecuted such groups.
Gaza’s Christians go out of their way to stress how they are no different and no less nationalistic than Muslim Palestinians even if they are leaving. They point to Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which was imposed after Hamas took power four years ago, for the troubled state of the local economy.
Israel is allowing more of them to leave Gaza to join family and attend worship services in the West Bank this year. But Gaza’s Christians only expressed anger at the restriction.
“The Israeli authorities only let Christians under age 16 and over 40 to leave Gaza to go to the West Bank, so hundreds are prevented from celebrating Christmas; that is religious oppression,” said Jelda, the community activist.
Hanna Massad, pastor of Gaza Baptist Church, told The Media Line that the number of Christians, a community made up of Catholics, Greek Orthodox and evangelical Christians, has declined by half or more in the past six years to between 2,000 and 3,000 people. She emphasized that they left Gaza in search of a better life or work opportunities, just like many Muslims.
 “I stayed in Gaza because my job is very good, but my family emigrated to Australia to live with my eldest brother. My family left not because of Hamas, but because of the siege here and the bad economy,” Peter George, who joined the Farah family for Christmas this year, told The Media Line. “Muslims emigrated too, and for the same reasons, so we can’t call it ‘Christian emigration’ as some like to call it.”