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 CNS Story:

GAZA-HAMAS Jan-21-2009 (620 words) xxxi

After war, Christians in Gaza express fear of emboldened Hamas

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM (CNS) -- Christians and moderate Muslims quietly expressed concern about what their place in the Gaza Strip would be now that Hamas remains strong after a three-week Israeli offensive.

Several businessmen who spoke to Catholic News Service questioned the outcome of the war, which began with Israeli bombardments Dec. 27 and ended with separate unilateral cease-fires -- declared by Israel Jan. 18 and Hamas Jan. 19.

"Hamas is still in government and there are guns everywhere," one businessman noted, hinting that Israel's offensive to destroy Hamas' power base was a failure.

Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist militia and political party that states as its goals the destruction of the Jewish state of Israel and the creation of an Islamic state in all of historical Palestine, remains armed. News reports said Israel failed to destroy the Hamas network of underground tunnels into Egypt.

At first Christians cautiously told CNS that although they were concerned about the future until now the Christian community had not been troubled by Hamas. But as the conversations continued, they recounted how unknown extremists had killed a member of a Baptist church in 2007 and there had been numerous violent attacks against Christian institutions and businesses, such as Internet cafes, viewed as Western.

All those interviewed by CNS expressed concern for their safety and insisted on complete anonymity.

"There is a lot we want to say but we are afraid," several said. If European countries would offer them political asylum, they said they would accept it.

One woman, asked if the recent three-week war would make Hamas stronger, replied, "I hope not."

She said she had no qualms with Hamas as a national force fighting for Palestinian rights but found its religious rhetoric, which made the conflict a struggle between Judaism and Islam, problematic.

Living near a mosque, she said, she often heard inflammatory statements over the loudspeakers, with the imam cursing Jews and Christians in the same breath.

It is not only scary but also dangerous, she said.

"It started in the mosques (when Hamas took over) and now it is going into the schools," she said.

Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, when Hamas split with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement. Fatah still controls the West Bank.

Although Christians said they feel that, along with Muslims, they are part of one Palestinian nation, they are bewildered by the growing extremism they are encountering. They said children throw stones at their front gates and taunt them with cries of "Christian, Christian." In the streets they sometimes hear the murmurings from older people that once the Muslims finish with the Jews, then they will come after the Christians.

"Many Christians think about leaving," said one Christian, "but the church wants us to stay."

The Christians said they felt the need to "take care of themselves" because they did not know what would happen in the future.

"We don't know what we will do if they decide to make Gaza into an Islamic emirate," said one man, recounting at his wife's insistence how Hamas thugs have threatened Christian women for not covering their hair as required by Islamic law and for wearing what Hamas deems to be immodest Western dress.

Moderate Palestinians also have accused Hamas of using the excuse of the recent war to incarcerate and physically abuse those who are seen to be supporters of opposing groups, such as Fatah.

One woman said she is glad her adult children live abroad.

"It would be selfish of me to ask them to come back and live through what I am living," she said. "There they are living a better life than I am here."

END


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