From his office in Gaza Suheil Tarazi, chairperson of the YMCA, is reflecting on the steady decline of the Christian community in the Gaza Strip: “You were born free by default and then you have the siege. Those that have the opportunity to get out, they get out. Some people never return because they find their freedom somewhere else,” he says.
It appears that leaving, whether permanently or temporarily, plays on the mind of many Christians in Gaza. Over the Christmas period, the Israeli authorities decide who will be granted permission to travel to Jerusalem and Bethlehem to visit family and friends in the West Bank.
One of the holiest sites in Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, is located in Jerusalem yet authorisation is not given to everybody who applies. Those under 35 are refused, which could mean that a husband is granted permission to leave, but his wife is not. Ironically, Christians from across the world can travel to visit the birthplace of Jesus and the site where he was resurrected.
Members of the community at home still celebrate during the festive period. They decorate their houses with a Christmas tree – a symbol of joy – pray together and visit their family and friends. “It’s peace and love during this time,” says Tarazi.
These days there are roughly 1,300 Christians, made up of 350 families, living within a population of around 1.8 million in Gaza. The majority are Greek Orthodox; there are a few hundred from the Latin Church and very few Baptists. During the 1948 Nakba up to 50,000 Christians were forced from their homes in Palestine, some settled in Gaza.
Those I have spoken to agree that because of the siege the economy in the Strip is dire and so unemployment among graduates is rife; limited job prospects ultimately mean marriage and family life are hard, so people seek to leave in search of greater opportunities.
One pastor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told MEMO: “There is a siege from the sky, from the land, from the sea. Most of the people cannot use the Israeli border. The Egyptian border is closed most of the time. Usually when people ask what it is like to live in Gaza I say I’ve never been in a prison, but I live in one.”
The pastor left the Strip in 2007 to live in Jordan with his wife. Now he travels back and forth working with Christian refugees in Amman, many of whom have fled ISIS, and with members of the community who are still in Gaza. This year, he has travelled to Gaza five times, though the journey is not easy thanks to the complicated web of Israeli settlements, road blocks and military zones that have been put in place across Palestine.
His journey home begins by navigating the Jordanian and Israeli authorities, waiting up to three hours for special permission in Jericho, before making his way towards the Erez Crossing. On the border of Gaza he is then checked by Hamas. Once, he tells me, he left Jordan at 7am and arrived at his family house in Gaza at half past midnight.
“The challenge for us as Christians, by the grace of God, we are able to forgive because we experienced God’s forgiveness. The challenge for us as Evangelical Christians, as a pastor, is how to keep your mind and your heart pure and to live by the spirit of forgiveness and not to let hatred rule in your life,” he says.
Yet the pastor points out that it is not only the siege that is a threat to the community. “In Gaza we live between two fires: the fire of Israeli occupation on one hand and also the fire of the militants on the other hand and these two things put pressure on the Christians in general.”
The Israeli government, and to some extent the international news, maintain that the ruling party in Gaza, Hamas, put pressure on Christians, which is what is ultimately forcing them to leave. “Some media outlets suggest that Hamas and Islamism are making life intolerable, whereas actually it is mainly occupation,” says Jeremy Moodey, chief executive of Embrace the Middle East.
Tarazi of YMCA points out that the Christmas period in Gaza is different to how it was under Yasser Arafat. There was once a Christmas tree in the centre, lit by Arafat’s wife, and delegates would come from the West Bank to visit the church. But despite the fact that this no longer happens, he is keen to point out that Hamas does not put pressure on the Christian community. “We are a conservative community here so they don’t touch us, they respect us. The respect is even greater after the last event.”
By the “last event” Tarazi is referring to the role the church played in harbouring families during the latest war on Gaza in which over 2,000 died. Each church provided shelter for approximately 700-800 people, offering food, drink and medicine to both Christian and Muslim families.
“It was marked by the Islamic movement in Gaza as one of the greatest acts of support that has ever been done by the church in Gaza during difficult times,” says Tarazi, adding: “This was the credit that was given to the Christian community.”
Tarazi is keen to point out that extremists do exist in Gaza but it is not only the Christians they target but other Muslims as well. “Remember, Gaza is not Hamas only it’s a diversity of so many people.”
“Imagine when you put people under siege for a long, long time, they are unable to see others face-to-face, they are unable to see another reality, and they are unable to benefit from being outside of their borders. How do you expect these people to behave with others, especially young people who were born during difficult times?”
This coexistence is nothing new. Dr Issa Tarazi, executive director at the Near East Council of Churches, says Christians and Muslims have lived for a long time in harmony. “We have lived together since ancient times. We didn’t have any problems because they [Muslims] respect our religion, we respect their beliefs, and we even celebrate together. Our friends come and celebrate with us and congratulate us during the feast. They don’t create any obstacles in our lives.”
Yet, whilst Christians and Muslims may live together in Gaza, the blockade means it is hard for them to maintain a good relationship with Palestinians in the West Bank, or Christian communities across the Middle East.
“Geographically, we are away from them,” says Issa. “We are under the occupation, we have no control over our borders, and there is a big siege on Gaza. We cannot even travel to Egypt, the Egyptian border has been closed for many months, it opens for a few hours, and it’s hard to go through the Israeli border. So we can’t do anything for them.”
“Please pray for us to have our borders opened and pray for peace – that’s what we need.”