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Christians in Palestine are more fearful

The murder last weekend of Rami Ayyad, the manager of the Bible Society bookshop in the Gaza Strip, is a shocking event. It is also another warning of the extent of the disintegration of Palestinian society, and the plight of the beleaguered Christian Palestinians.

Most reports placed Mr Ayyad’s death in the context of Palestinian Muslim-Christian relations, noting that in the Gaza Strip there are 3000 Christians out of a population of about 1.5 million. There was cross-society condemnation, from the ruling Hamas government to smaller political factions. Until recently, Christian and Muslim Palestinians have lived and worked side by side without problems. It is only in the past few years that sectarian relations in Palestine have deteriorated, for a combination of reasons. First, in a parallel of developments across the Middle East, political resistance to outside interference and neo-colonialism has found expression in varieties of Islamism. This has had the effect of alienating more secular-minded Muslims, as well as Christians. Second, some of Israel’s strongest backers are prominent Christians, including United States politicians. As Palestinians watch Western Christians support their colonisation, local Christians can be perceived as guilty by association. Finally, lawlessness, religious extremism, and social divisions in Palestine are direct and intended consequences of the 40-year-long Israeli occupation. Palestinians, dispossessed by Israel in 1948, have since 1967 watched their country fragment geographically and socially. It is not so much a case of a “failed state”, since the Palestinians are yet to achieve statehood. World Vision’s national director for Jerusalem and the West Bank, Charles Clayton, commenting on conditions that have produced 90 per cent unemployment in parts of the West Bank, described the economy’s “catastrophic” collapse as the reverse of development. He said: “It is unique, and it is artificially created.” The fabric that holds Palestinians together has been coming apart, especially in the sealed-off Gaza Strip. Since Hamas’s electoral victory in January 2006, the besieged Strip has become a pressure cooker of poverty and despair. It is no surprise that there are individuals willing to embrace an ideology that calls people to “pure religion”, and targets Christian bookshops. Along with Israeli land confiscation, and the encircling of cities with walls and electric fences, Christian Palestinians will now be worrying that they will be targeted by a tiny — but deadly — element within their own society.

Published in Church Times.

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