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GAZA-CHRISTIANS (UPDATED) Jun-18-2007 (550 words) xxxi

Christians in Gaza Strip express concern about their future

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM (CNS) -- Some Christians in the Gaza Strip -- including an official of Catholic Relief Services -- expressed concern about their future after Islamic militants of Hamas took control of the Palestinian territory.

Omar Shaban, CRS project manager for Gaza, said he did not know how Hamas, an Islamic extremist political and military movement, would view the U.S. bishops' international relief and development agency. CRS had been working with the unity government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before five days of infighting between the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas movements led to the Hamas takeover of Gaza.

"With Fatah as a secular organization we had no problems, but with Hamas I am not sure how they will perceive us," Shaban told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview.

He also noted that CRS no longer has a governmental body to work with in the Gaza Strip, since, as a U.S. nongovernmental organization, CRS is forbidden to have contact with Hamas. The U.S. government considers Hamas a terrorist organization.

Israel has closed its borders with the Gaza enclave, which is dependent on imports and foreign aid, and fuel was beginning to run short, Shaban said in mid-June. He said Gaza's 1.5 million residents, 80 percent of whom live under the poverty line, only had about two weeks of basic supplies left.

"I can't predict what will happen, but one thing is for certain: There is a group within Hamas which is starting to talk of the Islamization of society. Right now they are a small group, but the more pressure is put on, the more extreme they will become," he said.

One young woman told CNS by telephone that she was concerned Hamas would begin to enforce a strict dress code, forcing women to wear veils and robes, despite the movement's promises that nothing would change culturally or socially for Gaza.

One Christian teenager spoke to CNS on the condition that her name not be used. She said the days of fighting had been "very difficult" but that people were "OK now."

"We all hope it will be better, but it will never ever be good with Hamas," she said.

One news agency photo taken after the Hamas victory showed a hooded Hamas fighter standing atop a desk in an office of the Preventative Security headquarters with an automatic rifle in one hand and a Quran, or Muslim holy book, in the other.

Such scenes and statements proclaiming the arrival of "the era of justice and Islamic rule," attributed by foreign press reports to a Hamas militia spokesman, were what worried some young Gaza Christians.

Msgr. Manuel Musallam of Holy Family Parish in Gaza was unavailable for comment because since the takeover he had been in constant meetings, including a meeting with Hamas ministers who visited parish offices June 18.

The United States, European countries and Israel imposed an embargo and boycott on the West Bank and Gaza after Hamas came to power in March 2006, but those countries prepared to begin channeling aid to Abbas June 15 in an effort to shore up his new emergency government in the West Bank.

The Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank are separated by 30 miles of Israel.


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