For centuries, millions of Christian pilgrims visited the Holy Land to pray in the holy houses of worship. Palestinian Christians from all denominations who built these churches for centuries had the freedom to worship, without any problems from the nearby Muslims.Imagine how well Jews would be treated in a Palestinian Muslim-majority state!
Things began to change a decade ago, after the Palestinian Authority took control of major sections of the Holy Land. And, as Islamic fundamentalism has risen in those territories during that time, relations between the two religions began to deteriorate. As Islam has grown, lawlessness has spread throughout the territories, where Islamic militants have been emboldened to act - sometimes illegally - to advance their cause.
Christians now say they have experienced anti-Christian sentiment from Muslims that have ranged from verbal accusations to vicious beatings and murder. And basic holidays that Christians always celebrated have now been forbidden. In December, the Hamas government in Gaza banned any celebrations of New Year's eve and New Year's day, a traditional Christian holiday period. Also, in the West Bank, an Islamic group, "Keepers of Sharia (Islamic Law) warned residents not to celebrate the holidays.
Besides being shaken down by the Palestinian Authority for blackmail money, and having their land stolen in elaborate schemes from Palestinian Authority officials, some Christians say they have looked on helplessly as they suffered what they call the ultimate injustice: the burning and desecration of their holy churches.
Christians are still reeling from September, 2006, when seven churches in the West Bank and Gaza were attacked in a three day period after Muslims were infuriated by comments made by Pope Benedict VVI about Islam and the prophet Mohammed. The pope's comments followed the publication of cartoons depicting Mohammed in a Dutch newspaper. After the churches were attacked by Islamic fundamentalists, a Hamas leader, Imad Hamto, called for the Pope to repent and to convert to Islam.
The attacks were not the first on churches in the Holy Land in recent years. In 2001, Palestinian gunmen took over Christian-Palestinian churches in Beit Jallah - a city near Bethlehem - so they could fire into Israeli neighborhoods. At the time, Palestinian snipers said they took control of the holy churches because they were confident the Israelis would not attack them.
And, some say the worst case took place in 2002, when more than 100 Palestinian fighters loyal to former PA President Yasser Arafat took over the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and held dozens of hostages - including priests and nuns. Inside, the gunmen used bibles for toilet paper, emptied the church's charity boxes, and sold gold and silver crosses that had been in the church for centuries. They even lit a fire in a section of a church during the siege.
Christians say that the 2006 church burnings and attacks were a turning point in Christian-Muslim relations in the Holy Land.
"The Islamic people want to kill us. That's their principle and belief. They don't want Christians in this country. They don't want to hear our names; they don't want to see us. That's the reality," said Reverend Tomey Dahoud, who heads the Greek Orthodox Church in Taubas, a city near Jenin.
Dahoud's church, which was built more than 100 years ago, suffered extensive damage after its entrance hall was firebombed in Sept. of 2006. That attack sent shivers through the remaining 14 Christians in Taubas, causing some to consider leaving.
"We've had problems before with Muslims but they never touched the house of God," explained Dahoud. "What does it mean to set a church on fire? It's terrorism, it's a crime."
In Tulkaram, the last Christian family that takes care of the 200-year-old Greek Orthodox Church say they've had enough and want to practice their religion freely.
"We are preparing to move abroad to a place where we can live a better life as Christians," said Reverand Dahoud Dimitry, who heads the Tulkaram's Saint George Greek Orthodox church that burned to the ground in an arson attack on Sept. 16, 2006.
More than 30 years ago, the Christian community numbered close to 2000, but now Dimitry's family of 12 is the last remaining Christian family in this Islamic stronghold.
To date no one has been arrested or charged with the arson, which occurred after extremists poured gasoline throughout the church and on its alter.
The church was rebuilt but there are no funds for a security guard or for security cameras. During the fire, all of the church's contents except one bible were incinerated.
"We had two icons from the 15th century and they were destroyed. We had a small library and the most important thing that we had was a registry of all the names of Christians who had ever lived in Tulkaram. All of that burned and now we don't have any records of our ancestors."
In Nablus, there are now just 700 Christians left - down from 3,000 just 40 years ago. And, last year, the small Christian community was hard hit after four of its churches were burned by Islamic fundamentalists following the Pope's comments.
"We were afraid," explained Jamal Mahmud, who works at the Jacob Well Greek Orthodox Church in Nablus. Mahmud said during the days when Muslim rioted, 25 Molotov cocktails were thrown at the church, which suffered minimal damage. "When somebody throws a Molotov cocktail at you it's frightening," added Mahmud.
"The future will be even more dangerous for Christian people, added Reverand Yousef Jibran Saade, the spiritual leader of the Greek Catholic Church in Nablus. Saade's church was firebombed and riddled with bullets by unknown attackers on Sept. 16, 2006. No one has been arrested for the attacks, and, like other West Bank Christian clerics, he said the attack caused parishioners to consider moving abroad.
In Gaza, following the Pope's remarks, Islamic extremists bombed a 1,400-year-old Greek Orthodox Church. In addition, a group of Catholic nuns were threatened, and a bomb was placed outside of another church.
The attack and threats instilled fear into many of the church's parishioners. But even before the September, 2006 rioting, the small Christian community of 2,000 - mostly Greek Orthodox - felt unsafe. Since Hamas won the Palestinian elections in January of 2006, Sharia - or Islamic law - has been the informal law of the land. These days, Christian women cover their hair like Muslim women so as to not attract attention.
"It is dangerous for Christians in Gaza," explained Pastor Hanna Massad, a Palestinian-American who runs the 200-member Gaza Baptist Church.
Massad's church has been repeatedly threatened by fundamentalists in the last several years, and the bible store that his wife runs in Gaza City was firebombed twice in the last year. And in October, a bible store worker and one of his parishioners, Rami Ayyad, were kidnapped and murdered by Islamic fundamentalists. He was found near the Christian book store.
In Bethlehem, the threats, shakedowns, and anti-Christian sentiment have taken their toll on former Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser. Nasser said the community is still in shock over the 2002 takeover of the 1,400-year-old Church of the Nativity by Palestinian gunmen.
"For Christians it was a brutal feeling," said Nasser, who was born in Bethlehem, and also baptized and married inside the Church of the Nativity. "We were astonished and very angry. The church was not destroyed but we as Christians in Bethlehem, remain wounded."
At 70, Nasser plans to stay in the city. But, like other Christian families that trace their roots to this city for centuries, he has watched family members, like his son and daughter leave the city.
"There is no future for Christians," said Nasser.
Reverend Tomey Dahoud also says the pressure is mounting for all Christians to leave Palestinian-controlled lands. Still, he is prepared to stay, even if it means enduring violence. "Even if they are going to set fire to all of our churches we will stay and die here," said Dahoud.
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