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 CNS Story:

GAZA-CHRISTIANS Feb-19-2008 (790 words) xxxi

Christians say conditions in Gaza worsen for them, moderate Muslims

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM (CNS) -- Living conditions for Christians and moderate Muslims are becoming increasingly difficult in the Gaza Strip, Christians told Catholic News Service.

"First there was the murder of (Christian bookstore owner) Rami (Ayyad), now the YMCA (bombing). We can feel it step by step," said one young Christian, who like other Christians interviewed by CNS spoke on the condition of anonymity.

No one has been apprehended after the October kidnapping and killing of Ayyad, a member of the Gaza Baptist Church. Only one of more than a dozen gunmen who overpowered the two YMCA guards and destroyed the building's library with a bomb Feb. 15 has been caught, sources in Gaza said Feb. 18.

Thousands of books were lost in the explosion but the gunmen failed in their attempt to damage an adjoining wedding hall. The YMCA is open to both Christians and Muslims. In addition to the wedding hall and library, it includes a sports hall and school and runs a summer camp.

"Everybody is scared," said one Christian teenager. "But still we went to the YMCA. There weren't a lot of people there, but we don't have any other place to go."

The YMCA used to be seen as a refuge from the boredom and tensions for young people, she said, but now "we can't relax."

She said she sensed an increasing anti-Christian atmosphere in Gaza but still would not consider leaving.

Christians told CNS a Christian youth was injured Feb. 16 when the "modesty patrol" attacked his car after he was seen driving a former female classmate to her home. The girl also was injured. The unofficial, militant-associated patrols monitor social behavior.

The youth "just innocently asked her if she wanted a ride home. He didn't think about what might happen," said a source. "It is very terrible. The YMCA is a very well-known place. Nobody thought it would be attacked. Muslims and Christians went there together. There are fanatics being funded by unknown groups, maybe from the outside. We are all scared."

Christians are doing their best to remain unnoticed, said the source, but sometimes it is impossible to do.

"This is Gaza and this is the problem of Gaza," said Msgr. Manuel Musallam, pastor of Holy Family Parish there. "We are moving toward the unknown. The Christians are worried about the general tone in the country."

Msgr. Musallam said the conditions in Gaza and relations with government ministries have changed drastically following the militant Islamic group Hamas' takeover of the territory last June.

"The months before Hamas were one thing," he said. "We are now entering a new life, new behavior in Gaza. We have never passed (this experience) before. It is a more conservative thing."

He said people could not speak openly. Still, he said, Palestinians have met with police and an adviser to the prime minister and will establish a joint Christian-Muslim dialogue group so the Muslim population can get to know the Christian community better.

Msgr. Musallam said the character of the parish school has changed, with Muslims students increasingly coming from Hamas-affiliated families. There is more violence and tension at the school because of the internal and external pressures and stresses of daily life in Gaza, he said.

"The children are more fanatic, very violent toward each other and also with the teachers. It is very difficult," he said. "Instead of being a father in the school I have to be the police."

He said he was bringing in an educational specialist to help the children express themselves through drama, art and dance.

"I am tired. At nights I can't sleep. I have many things in my head," he said. "The problems are increasing each day."

Meanwhile, Msgr. Musallam said there were "private troubles" within the Christian community.

He said conservative residents opposed the open character of the YMCA, where young boys and girls could mix freely, and talk of inappropriate behavior there abounded.

"You don't feel like it is a Palestinian place at night. It feels like Europe," Msgr. Musallam said. He said there should be more supervision of the youngsters to prevent rumors from spreading.

"In a very conservative society you can't live a very democratic life," he said, noting there had been opposition to celebrating St. Valentine's Day. "When you are in a conservative Muslim society you can't live an open life."

One young Christian scoffed at the charges against the YMCA, noting that director Issa Sabbah was a "very conservative man." He said young people there behaved according to Palestinian norms while relaxing and talking to friends.

It is the "fanatics," he said, who saw this type of behavior as "illegal."


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