In the Autumn 2016 edition of ONE, journalist Don Duncan profiles Sami El-Yousef, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, as part of our special look at the Catholic Eastern churches. Here, He offers some further reflections on what it means to be a Christian in Gaza.
I remember hearing a story from another journalist I knew when I was living in Beirut about a Christian woman in Gaza who had been dragged from her car by people loyal to Hamas who berated her for not wearing the headscarf in public.
There were several things that were shocking about the story: the fact that, in Gaza under Hamas, Palestinian and Muslim were now conflated with no room for other identities; the fact that women in Gaza were now being policed and confronted for their non-adherence to a conservative version of Islam; and the fact that when the woman in question protested yelling “I am Christian,” this made no dent on the men accosting her.
When I got to Jerusalem to do an interview for ONE with Sami El-Yousef, CNEWA’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, I met up with an old photographer friend. She had just left Gaza where she had been on assignment. It had been her first time there and she was quite affected by it. She has lived in the West Bank for periods in the past but that did not fully prepare her for Gaza. The hardship of life there, the lack of security and the inhumanity of the siege imposed on the strip by Israel got to her, but so too did the heavy-handed, centralized conservatism of Hamas. Being in Gaza as a woman, she said, reminded her of being in Saudi Arabia, where she had been many times on assignment.
When I finally met with Mr. El-Yousef in his office in the Old City of Jerusalem, Gaza featured prominently during the interview.
He gave me a much more nuanced insight into the unique position of Christians in Gaza, who now number only 1,200 out of the population of two million. Their welfare and the conditions of their day-to-day lives are very much dependent on Hamas but even more so on the geopolitics in the immediate region — especially the political tones in Egypt and Israel, with which the strip shares its borders.
As in many other countries in the Middle East, the Christian population in Gaza punches above its weight when it comes to its contributions to the non-governmental health and education sectors. But this doesn’t seem to matter so much, Mr. El-Yousef told me, when political tides turn in the region. For example, when the Egyptian Revolution happened and the Muslim Brotherhood finally came into power across the border, Hamas in Gaza found itself with a powerful natural ally and was soon at the height of its power. This was bad for Christians in Gaza who suddenly found more restrictions on their ability to live by their faith. Christmas symbols such as the Christmas tree were ordered to be taken down. Steps were taken to segregate schools by sex. Christian students at the Islamic University of Gaza were obliged to take courses in Islamic law, etc.
Then, when Hamas is at a low — as happened when Israel launched the military “Operation Protective Edge” on Gaza in 2014 — the pressure on Gazan Christians is released. Unfortunately, it is during times of conflict and crisis that Christian hospitals, clinics and schools can shine the most in how they offer non-discriminatory help of all those affected.
Since that last war in Gaza, says Sami el-Yousef, there has been a change in the attitude of the Hamas leadership towards the Christian presence in Gaza: something of a turnaround. Christmas trees were once again permitted behind churches. The project to segregate schools by gender stalled and Hamas representatives actually showed up at churches to wish them a happy Christmas.
The above pattern disturbs me and it is a pattern I have seen facing Christians in Iraq, in Lebanon, Egypt and now in Palestine. When trouble looms and there is a crisis, unity and solidarity prevails and Christians and the value they bring to society are welcomed and utilized. But when things are relatively stable, old distrust and bigotry seem to emerge. It’s a sad cycle and it appears to me to be repeating itself without variation.
I wonder then, why does violence and war have to be such a key ingredient to the embrace and valuing of Christians in the Middle East? Are there any alternatives? By what means could a “majority rules, minority rights” system be encouraged or developed?