Palestinian gunmen Saturday attacked and set fire to the Young Men's Christian Association headquarters in Qalqiliya, a large West Bank city controlled by Hamas.
Local government sources identified the attackers as members of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups, saying the identities of the gunmen are "well known" to Qalqiliya's security forces, which are controlled by the Hamas government.
Saturday's arson follows a series of warnings by the Muslim leadership of Qalqilya accusing the city's YMCA of missionary activity and demanding the Christian organization close its offices and leave town or face likely Muslim violence.
According to local reports, the gunmen Saturday afternoon destroyed the locks on the YMCA's entrance gates, crushed the gates, then entered the building and set it ablaze. Local fire brigades reportedly rushed to the scene and stopped the fire before it spread to neighboring buildings. The building sustained serious damage, YMCA officials said.
Qalqiliya police say they opened an investigation into the incident and would hunt down and arrest the attackers.
One political source in the city told WND, "The identity of the attackers is well known to Hamas. We don't expect the Hamas-controlled police, the Hamas city council or the Hamas Interior Ministry to do anything about this attack."
The source called the arson a "warning to YMCAs and Christian groups in the Palestinian areas that they are not safe."
In April major Muslim organizations in Qalqiliya in conjunction with local mosques, the city's Mufti and municipal leaders, sent a letter to the interior minister of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority accusing the YMCA of missionary activities and demanding the Palestinian government immediately shut down the Christian offices.
The YMCA has operated in Qalqiliya since 2000.
The petition, obtained by WorldNetDaily, states, "We the preachers of the mosques and representatives of major families in Qalqiliya ask you to close the offices of the YMCA because the population of Qalqiliya doesn't need such offices, especially since there are not many Christians in our city."
It warned, "The act of these institutions of the YMCA, including attempting to convert Muslims in our city, will bring violence and tension."
Three days before the petition was delivered several Molotov cocktails were thrown at Qalqiliya's YMCA. Local political sources said the Molotov attacks followed Friday sermons in dozens of Qalqiliya mosques in which preachers called upon the community to revolt against the YMCA.
"There was a coordination among the mosques to speak about the YMCA. One major imam, for example, warned if the YMCA doesn't close down it will lead to 'acts that no one would like to see,'" said one political source in April.
Joseph Medi, the YMCA manager in Qalqiliya, said his operation has never been involved with missionary activity.
“It's not what we're about. There is no missionary activity here whatsoever. The YMCA is in the city to serve the population with financial help, sporting activities and general educational programs," said Medi.
Medi pointed out many employees at his branch of the YMCA are Muslim. He said the YMCA was instrumental in establishing a number of community programs, including contributing to the financing of the Al Ahli Club, a mostly Muslim local soccer organization that has competed in national games.
Medi said Qalqiliya's YMCA received a final notification from local leaders warning the association to close its offices before "drastic measures" were taken. He said no specific measures were specified.
Qalqiliya is located at the West Bank's point of closest proximity to the Mediterranean Sea. There are reported only about 50-100 Christians in a population of about 28,300. The city's mayor, Sheikh Waji Qawwas, is a Hamas member who was just released from Israeli prison.
Hamas swept all 15 municipal offices in local elections in Qalqiliya in last December. The group went on to win the vast majority of Palestinian parliamentary seats in January and officially took over the Palestinian Authority four months ago.
'Christian persecution trend in West Bank, Gaza'
One Christian leader, an aide to Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah who asked his name be withheld out of fear of Muslim retaliation, called the threats against Qalqiliya's YMCA part of a general trend of Christian persecution in Palestinian areas.
"It's been happening all over the West Bank and Gaza," said the aide.
There have been rampant reports of abuses and persecution in several West Bank towns taken over by the PA. Anti-Christian riots have been reported in Ramallah, Nazareth and surrounding villages as well as in towns in Gaza.
In Bethlehem, local Christians have long complained of anti-Christian violence. The city's Christian population, once counting for 90 percent, declined drastically since the PA took control in December 1995. Christians now make up less than 25 percent of Bethlehem, according to Israeli surveys.
Some analysts called the demands for the YMCA to close one of many indications Hamas may be seeking to impose Islamic rule on the Palestinian population.
Israeli officials say Hamas in the Gaza Strip has established hard-line Islamic courts and created the Hamas Anti-Corruption Group, which is described as a kind of "morality police" operating within Hamas' organization. Hamas has denied the existence of the anti-corruption group, but it recently carried out a high-profile "honor killing" widely covered by the Palestinian media.
A Hamas-run council in the West Bank came under international criticism last year when it barred an open-air music and dance festival, declaring it was against Islam.
Reprinted by permission of WorldNetDaily