The Real Threat To Gaza's Christians: Forced Conversions Or Poverty?

ANALYSIS

 @crvillarreal
on July 18 2012 2:38 PM
Gaza Christians
There are only an estimated 1,500 Christians among the Gaza Strips 1.7 million population. REUTERS

Christians in the Gaza Strip staged public protests earlier this week, claiming that five members of their small community had been kidnapped by Islamists with the intention of forcibly converting them to Islam.

The five people in question -- a young man and a mother and her three children -- are allegedly being held against their will by an unidentified Islamist group, but Gaza police have said that the two adults are staying with a Muslim religious official of their own free will and out of fear of retribution from their families for converting to Islam.

There are roughly 1,500 Christians in Gaza, forming a marginal percentage of the total population of 1.7 million Palestinians.

With the rise to power of the Islamist Hamas government (deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S. and E.U.) in 2007, Gaza's Christians have become increasingly marginalized, but the greatest threat to their existence appears to be economics rather than religious persecution.

According to community estimates, the number of Christians in Gaza has shrunk by 2,000 in recent years due to emigration amid dismal employment opportunities -- the U.N. estimated unemployment at over 45 percent in 2011 -- in the economically isolated territory, the Associated Press reported.

However, it is difficult to measure whether Christians have left due to economic reasons or because they felt discriminated against for their beliefs. Regardless, the economic factor cannot be ignored.

Since the openly anti-Israel Hamas government came to power, Israel has blockaded the 141 square-mile stretch of land all sides, including by air and sea, regulating the flow of goods and people to and from the densely populated and impoverished territory.

Continued rocket-propelled grenade attacks on Israeli communities coming out of Gaza have been met with airstrikes on Hamas government compounds and key infrastructure sites, which have further exacerbated the territory's economic instability.

Gaza's Christians are part of a threatened minority, both within Gaza for their religious beliefs and as Palestinians, caught between a belligerent Islamist government that promotes an atmosphere of religious intolerance and Israel's heavy-handed policy of isolation and containment.

Nevertheless, maintaining the traditions of their faith is tantamount for Gaza's dwindling Christian population, and the threat of forced conversions, whether real or perceived, has been the single issue which has brought the community out into the open, where political and economic strife seems insurmountable and beyond their control.

With our spirit, with our blood we will sacrifice ourselves for you, Jesus, the protesters are said to have yelled as one of them banged on the bell of their church.

Huda Amash, the mother of one the converts, Ramez Amash, a 25-year-old man, refused to accept the idea that her son would abandon his Christian faith.

My son was brought up as a Christian. His love of Jesus is strong enough to keep him Christian. He cannot change his beliefs all of a sudden, she was quoted as saying by the Los Angeles Times.

If things remain like this, there'll be no Christians left in Gaza, she told AP. Today it's Ramez. Then who, and who will be next?

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