The tiny Christian community in Gaza is squeezed on two fronts: first, by an Israeli blockade that cripples the economy and makes freedom of mobility virtually impossible; and second, by the policies of Hamas—the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood—which came to power in 2007. The reign of Hamas began an extreme Islamization process from above and especially from below, which was deepened after the Arab Uprisings of 2011 and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in neighboring Egypt. Christians in Gaza today are targeted on the basis of their religious faith in ways even more acute and systematic than Christians in the West Bank and Israel.
Scholarly Analysis: Christian Responses to Persecution in Gaza
Egypt, Libya, Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Turkish-Occupied Cyprus
Panel: Findings from the Middle East & North Africa
Moderator: Christian Sahner, University of Cambridge
Speakers: Joshua Landis, University of Oklahoma
Elizabeth Prodromou, Tufts University
Mariz Tadros, University of Sussex
Christian Van Gorder, Baylor University
According to a survey of the Christian community in the Gaza Strip undertaken by the YMCA in March 2014, there were only 1,313 Christian individuals remaining in Gaza, less than 0.09 percent of the 1.5 million Gazan population (down from 1 percent in 1945). Eighty-nine percent of the Christian population in Gaza are Greek Orthodox, while 9.3 percent are Latin Catholic, and 1.52 percent belong to Baptist and other Protestant denominations. The declining numbers are due to an extremely high level of emigration as well as lower birth rates.
History of the Gazan Christian Community
Christianity in Gaza dates to the fourth century and is home to some of the oldest churches in the world. Hilarion, a leading figure of early Christianity, was the Gazan founder of monastic life in Palestine. After World War II and the establishment of the Israeli state, however, a large number of Christians left the region.
Current Situation of the Gazan Christian Community
Today, Christians in Gaza are squeezed on two fronts. First of all, Gaza is subject to an Israeli blockade that cripples the economy and makes freedom of mobility virtually impossible. This blockade isolates the small Christian community and prevents them from seeking solidarity with the larger Church or traveling to holy sites. Gaza has also recently endured three military campaigns that have debilitated its already damaged infrastructure and virtually destroyed its ability to produce goods for the domestic market. A UNCTAD report suggests that Gaza could become uninhabitable by 2020 if current economic trends persist.
On the other side, Christians are squeezed by the policies of Hamas—the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood—which came to power in 2007. The reign of Hamas began an insidious Islamization process from above and especially from below, which was deepened after the Arab Uprisings of 2011 and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in neighboring Egypt. Christians in Gaza today are targeted on the basis of their religious faith in ways even more acute and systematic than Christians in the West Bank and Israel. Women are pressured to cover their hair and adopt Islamic forms of attire and are subject to harassment. In general, Christians are made to feel like second-class citizens, despite their Palestinian patriotism and historical affinity to the land.
Responses to Persecution
In Gaza, as in other parts of the Holy Land, the ecclesiastical and lay responses to the Israeli blockade and to the Islamization of society diverge. On the one hand, the leaders of the ancient churches believe that the only response that would ensure their survival and the protection of their historic heritage, both architectural and cultural, is to remain. But on the other hand, many everyday struggling Christians consider emigration the only option for the preservation of family cohesion and survival.
One way Christian leaders have sought to ensure the survival of a Christian presence in Gaza is through strategies of association. For example, when Muslim leaders began to openly vilify Christians as infidels, Christian leaders sought dialogue with both the imams of the mosques and the leaders from the Islamic establishment. In some instances, Muslim religious leaders desisted from anti-Christian rhetoric, but no measures were taken to stop the slurring of Christians by, for example, children on the street. Christian churches have also sought to play a patriotic role, emphasizing their solidarity with other Palestinian forces resisting Israeli occupation. During the Gaza war of 2014, for example, the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius became a refuge for people of all backgrounds fleeing Israeli shells. Churches observe courteous and respectful relations with the authorities, ensuring that on every religious festivity, Christian leaders pay their Muslim counterparts a visit to wish them well. However, in essence, the churches in Gaza have very modest sources of power to with which to bargain and little leverage in engaging with the authorities. They are therefore in a weak position to hold the authorities accountable for any infringements.
The Greek Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church have also played central roles in providing education for girls and boys in Gaza through their Christian-run schools. These schools, though not entirely immune from attempts at Islamization, have been particularly important for creating a safe enclave for Christians to be educated without intense Islamic indoctrination. One way the Greek Orthodox Church in particular has adapted to the Israeli blockade is by appointing Greek priests to parishes in Gaza and encouraging them to learn Arabic upon arrival. They reason that foreign-born priests are less likely to face mobility restrictions than Arab priests, although of course the cultural differences can present other problems.
Additionally, churches have sought to support their followers by establishing housing projects on land that has been endowed to them, often through tenancy. They have been unsuccessful, however, in helping the Christian community secure employment. In fact, many Gazan Christians criticize Christian organizations (in particular charitable and developmental ones) for privileging Muslim applicants, a policy they believe to be driven by a desire to appease the Islamic authorities and avoid bureaucratic hurdles. Many fear that faced with the absence of jobs, these young men’s only recourse would be to emigrate.
Lay Christians adapt to the Islamization of society in disparate ways. Some Christian men grow their beards so as not to stick out (in other words coping by assimilating). Many women, on the other hand, choose resistance and refuse to don any form of head cover even if it means being exposed to harassment on the streets or restricting their freedom of mobility. Despite these strategies, however, emigration remains the primary strategy of survival, though not all who wish to emigrate are able to do so. Many leaders fear that if trends are not reversed, the indigenous Christian population in Gaza could become extinct.
This country profile draws on research by Dr. Mariz Tadros and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project.