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Hamas has a positive legacy with Christians but it faces a serious test

Palestinian watch fireworks marking the lighting of a Christmas tree on December 3, 2016 at the Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem [Wisam Hashlamoun / ApaImages]
Palestinian Christians watch fireworks marking the lighting of a Christmas tree on 3 December 2016 at the Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem [Wisam Hashlamoun / ApaImages]

In its efforts to rally all Palestinians, Hamas strives to be inclusive. Over the past few years since winning control of the Gaza Strip in 2006/7, the Islamic Resistance Movement has made efforts to accept differences and opposition, despite a few mishaps here and there.

In recent days, Palestinian activists in Gaza have been circulating a video showing a Christian talking about the bad treatment he received at a Hamas-run hospital in the territory, allegedly because of his faith. He claimed that hospital officials told him to obtain treatment at the expense of the Pope. The video went viral and has sparked heated debates on social media, causing embarrassment for Hamas, which is still the de facto government of the Gaza Strip. Hamas immediately addressed the extraordinary incident, as both Palestinian Christians and Muslims process their administrative and government requests at the ministries controlled by the movement equally; religion should not be a factor in such matters.

Hamas has a positive legacy of good relations with Palestinian Christians. The head of the movement’s Political Bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, and a delegation of senior officials visited the Latin Monastery in Gaza City recently to wish Palestinian Christians compliments of the season. He stressed the strong relationship between Muslim and Christian Palestinians, as one nation belonging to one country and with one cause. There is, stressed Haniyeh, a deep historical relationship between them.

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When a presenter on Hamas-controlled Aqsa TV used the term “Christian community” in reference to dealing with Palestinian Christians as a minority, the movement believed that this emphasised a non-existent issue. Attempts to create difficulties for Hamas were contrived, as the term carries no negative connotations.

It is estimated that there are 1,000 Christians in the Gaza Strip, out of a total population of two million. Seventy per cent of them are Greek Orthodox; the rest are Roman Catholics.

The official position of Hamas on Christians can be read from the point of view that, since its foundation in the 1980s, its relationship with Palestinian Christians distinguishes only between “those who lived with us, who have what we have and receive what we receive, and those who participate in Western attacks against us.” The movement’s founding charter, written in 1988, stated that Hamas “adheres to the permissibility of Islam with regards to followers of other religions. It is not hostile towards them, except those who fight it. According to Islam, followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism coexist in security and safety.”

In the political document issued in mid-2017, Hamas asserted that, “The Palestinian people, with all their religious and cultural components, are one and believe that Islam is the religion of peace and tolerance. Palestine was and will remain a model of coexistence and tolerance and Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine, including all of its Muslim and Christian sanctities.”

In addition, Hamas has always included Christian holidays and religious events in its statements and activities, and officials have participated when possible. When strikes were called which coincided with a Christian celebration, then the strikes were switched to another date. This happened on several occasions during the First and Second Intifadas. Moreover, the movement has made sure to include Christians in Palestinian political life, maintained open relations with religious leaders, and had them on their side in national matters. The position taken by Palestinian Roman Catholic priest Father Manuel Musallam, for example, indicates the strong relationship that he has with Hamas.

Senior Christian Priest in Ramallah Father Manuel Musallam [Syrian news 1/Facebook]

“Hamas deals with its Christian brothers as a major component of the nation and an active player in the struggle against the occupation,” explained the former head of the Hamas Political Bureau, Khalid Meshaal. “It does not differentiate between Muslims and Christians in these matters, as we are partners in our homeland and everyone has rights and responsibilities.”

When pro-Hamas candidates stood on the Change and Reform electoral list in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, they called for “respect for the rights of all on the basis of citizenship, and to maintain the Palestinian Muslim and Christian Awqaf [religious endowments], alongside justice and equality of opportunity for all citizens in recruitment, employment and promotion.”

In practical terms, Hamas does not formulate its position on Christians and even Jews based on their respective views and beliefs, but on their stance on what the Palestinian people are exposed to. This stems from the reaction to aggression, not religious beliefs, which has paved the way throughout the long history of Palestine to good relations between Muslims and Christians across Palestine in general, and the Gaza Strip in particular.

The Israeli occupation has served to unite all political efforts on different levels, regardless of political affiliation or faith; Islamic activists work alongside secular leftists as well as Christian cadres. Hamas may be urged to hold a serious discussion across the organisation to investigate the possibility of accommodating Christians within the movement in an effective and appropriate framework.

The movement surprised everyone in 2006 when it nominated a Christian from Gaza on its electoral list. This attracted criticism from some other Islamic movements and even within Hamas itself, with accusations that it was against Islamic law to support a Christian candidate in the absence of the appropriate Shari’ah structure to provide the context. In fact, the resistance movement’s tolerant attitude towards Christians has resulted in sharp criticism by the leaders of jihadi organisations — including Al-Qaeda’s Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — who accused Hamas of apostasy and inciting against Salafist Jihadis. This was simply because Hamas wished Palestinian Christians happy holidays and described them as brothers.

However, this did not discourage Hamas from continuing its tolerant and open attitude towards Christians. The government led by Ismail Haniyeh in 2006 included Christian Minister Jawdat George Markas from Bethlehem.

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After the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 and the formation of a political party for Hamas, Mousa Abu Marzouk, the head of its political bureau at the time, stated that the proposed party would take steps to include Christians and some would occupy senior leadership positions. When Hamas formed the Islamic National Salvation Party in 1998, it opened the door for Christians to join on the basis of citizenship.

In recent years, Gaza has witnessed clearer manifestations of the degree of tolerance and camaraderie between Muslims and Christians. Dozens of Palestinians headed to the Church of St. Pervarius in the centre of the city in 2014 during the Israeli war, for example, in order to pray the extra prayers during the nights of the month of Ramadan after Israel had bombed their homes. It was not easy to differentiate between Muslims and Christians who jointly provided the needs of dozens families who took refuge in the Church.

More than anything, the relationship between Hamas and Palestinian Christians has been established and developed based on the struggle against the Israeli occupation. The movement remains keen to be vigilant and avoid confusion about the relationship, which is a manifestation of the philosophy of political and religious pluralism and coexistence within the framework of Palestinian society. This is a key element in shaping the national perception of its role that Hamas retains; it counts in the movement’s favour.

Nevertheless, Hamas is well aware that the way that Christians in Gaza are treated will have either a positive or negative impact in Western capitals. This could result in moves being taken to bring them closer or further away from the movement. Hamas is, therefore, facing a serious challenge in demonstrating its difference of opinion with other Islamist movements, who view Christians as a minority, not as equal partners.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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