A religious war, Gaza-style: The Orthodox Christian Church in the Gaza Strip is claiming that a group of armed Islamists kidnapped five Christian Palestinians, a young man and a mother and her three daughters, to force them to convert to Islam.
In a statement, the church said that "the dangerous Islamist movement is trying to convince Christian men and women to convert to Islam, destroying Christian families and the Christian presence in the Gaza Strip."
- Op-ed: Bethlehem's last Christians?
The church refused to divulge the name of the Islamist group it accused of these attempts.
The head of the Gaza church claimed that one of the Christians was abducted on Saturday after he had been heavily pressured to convert to Islam and had been prevented from seeing his family. According to the leader, the young man's parents filed a police complaint, but the police did nothing after learning that the person behind the alleged kidnappers was a senior cleric identified with Hamas.
Armed Hamas members in the Gaza Strip (Photo: AFP)
The priest called on all official bodies in Gaza to intervene in the matter and stop abductions of Christians and attempts to force them to convert. He noted that the church was in contact with the Red Cross and with human rights groups in the Strip to arrange protection for local Christians.
On Monday, members of the Christian community held a rare demonstration in protest of the reported kidnappings. Participants rang church bells and called out "In spirit and blood, we will sacrifice ourselves for you, Jesus!" A solidarity protest was held at the same time in Bethlehem on the plaza of the Church of the Nativity.
A spokesman for the Hamas Police in Gaza, Ayman Batniji, flatly denied the church's allegations and said that one of the young men in question had already converted to Islam, and when he arrived to visit his family a fight broke out, causing the police to be summoned.
Batniji stressed that the youth had not been abducted and that he was being guarded by the aforementioned cleric out of concern that his family might try to harm him.
Iyad al-Alami, one of the directors of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights who intervened in an attempt to solve the matter, said that his people had held separate meetings with the young man and the mother.
He said that during the meetings, it became clear that they had both converted willingly and that there was no indication that they had been kidnapped or forced to do anything against their will.
The Christian community in Gaza has been shrinking. A few years ago, the Strip was home to 3,500 Christians, whereas today Christians number only 1,500. Some are concerned that the rapid and significant decline could eventually cause the community to disappear, either due to emigration or the decision of some Christians to convert to Islam.
"If things go on this way, there won't be any Christians left in the Gaza Strip," the mother of the youth who converted said. "Today, it's him. Who will be next?"