Excerpt

In Hamas-Run Gaza, the Last Arab Christians Are Hanging On

An ancient community bears witness to its own purging—and recalls a more tolerant time.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
Orthodox Christian worshippers pray.
Orthodox Christian worshippers pray during a Palm Sunday service at the Syriac Orthodox Church in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, in northern Iraq, on April 25. Safin Hamid/AFP via Getty Images

For three years beginning in A.D. 723, an English monk, traveler, and later bishop and saint named Willibald visited Gaza, becoming one of the first Englishmen to step foot in the Holy Land. His travelogue mentions a beautiful “cathedral mosque,” where he thought Christians and Muslims might have been combining their religions in some shape or form. Even while crusaders were destroying Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade, Gaza was a refuge. Willibald went on to say that friendship between the Christian and Muslim communities in Gaza was sincere; nobody worried about the religion of his or her neighbor. “The only thing missing was interreligious marriage, but that is to be understood, given that people did not get married for love but because of their family’s decision,” he wrote. Ramadan and Easter were celebrated alike.

The desert monks who arrived in Palestine between the fourth and sixth centuries wrote of a life that was hard but spiritually fulfilling. Despite enormous challenges, they thrived. The descendants of Gaza’s ancient Christians followed in their footsteps, pressing on through the hardships of life.

Today, the purging of the Christian community is part of a broader vanishing of Christians from the Middle East. In Gaza, it is partly the result of the economy and the siege, but it is undeniably made worse by life under Hamas. In 2007, one year after Hamas was elected, the last Christian bookstore in central Gaza, known as The Teacher’s Bookshop, was firebombed twice. It was one of a spate of similar bombings that occurred in Gaza around that time. The bookshop, a haven of sorts with an internet café and educational services, had been established by the Gaza Baptist Church 10 years earlier. Its Christian owner, Rami Ayyad, a deeply religious and kindly man, was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by extremists. He had received death threats from jihadis for years but refused to close his shop. Hamas condemned the murder and vowed to protect the remaining Christians, but the assailants were never found.

For three years beginning in A.D. 723, an English monk, traveler, and later bishop and saint named Willibald visited Gaza, becoming one of the first Englishmen to step foot in the Holy Land. His travelogue mentions a beautiful “cathedral mosque,” where he thought Christians and Muslims might have been combining their religions in some shape or form. Even while crusaders were destroying Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade, Gaza was a refuge. Willibald went on to say that friendship between the Christian and Muslim communities in Gaza was sincere; nobody worried about the religion of his or her neighbor. “The only thing missing was interreligious marriage, but that is to be understood, given that people did not get married for love but because of their family’s decision,” he wrote. Ramadan and Easter were celebrated alike.

The desert monks who arrived in Palestine between the fourth and sixth centuries wrote of a life that was hard but spiritually fulfilling. Despite enormous challenges, they thrived. The descendants of Gaza’s ancient Christians followed in their footsteps, pressing on through the hardships of life.

This article is adapted from The Vanishing: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets by Janine di Giovanni (PublicAffairs, 272 pp., , October 2021).

This article is adapted from The Vanishing: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets by Janine di Giovanni (PublicAffairs, 272 pp., $30, October 2021).

Today, the purging of the Christian community is part of a broader vanishing of Christians from the Middle East. In Gaza, it is partly the result of the economy and the siege, but it is undeniably made worse by life under Hamas. In 2007, one year after Hamas was elected, the last Christian bookstore in central Gaza, known as The Teacher’s Bookshop, was firebombed twice. It was one of a spate of similar bombings that occurred in Gaza around that time. The bookshop, a haven of sorts with an internet café and educational services, had been established by the Gaza Baptist Church 10 years earlier. Its Christian owner, Rami Ayyad, a deeply religious and kindly man, was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by extremists. He had received death threats from jihadis for years but refused to close his shop. Hamas condemned the murder and vowed to protect the remaining Christians, but the assailants were never found.

I had passed the bookshop numerous times on my many trips and remember when it opened in 1998—a time when we could drink beer in Gaza and sit outside in cafés at the beach. When I returned in 2019, people seemed frightened to talk to me about Ayyad’s death or the bombings, even though they had occurred many years before. Instead, a woman piling books in the bookstore that had taken the old one’s place directed me to the building’s fifth floor, where an evening church service was taking place. “You are just in time!” she said excitedly, hustling me out of the bookstore and up a flight of steps.

Attalah told me Christians in Gaza are generally in better health than other Palestinians, but he doesn’t treat only Christians.

The service did not have the trappings of a Catholic or Orthodox mass, as one would expect in the Levant, but instead showed what I assumed were the Baptist roots of the organization behind the new bookstore on the ground floor. The setting reminded me of some of the makeshift Latino churches on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which look as though they have been set up overnight. On a Sunday afternoon in Gaza, a tiny crowd sat on worn brown velvet chairs while their children played in the back of the room. It looked more like someone’s living room or a play group than a church. On the wall, there were paintings of birds flying against a deep sunset, and unsettling electronic music played above the shouts of the children.

The pastor stood next to a young girl wearing high-waisted jeans and a cold-shoulder T-shirt, an iPhone shoved in her back pocket. They stood side by side at the pulpit, taking turns reading from the Bible in Arabic. The girl sang in a rich melodic voice, raising her arms for the congregation to join in.

I was unsure what role the Baptist church played in Gaza, and many people were wary of talking about it. Finally, Attalah Tarazi, who runs the Gaza Center of Light and Culture, another Baptist organization, met me in his office. The Tarazis are an old, revered Christian family in Gaza, full of doctors, lawyers, professors, and landowners, with many branches and dozens of cousins twice and three times removed. Attalah was born in Gaza near the Orthodox church right after the 1948 Nakba—from a word meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic—when Israel fought and won its war of independence and started the mass displacement of Palestinians from their ancestral homes.

“Israel was born, and we lost Palestine,” he said simply.

Gaza in 1948 was a different world. The streets were miles and miles of sand. The Tarazis were a powerful clan in the region. Attalah’s father, a wealthy jeweler, had been born in 1906 when Palestine was still a part of the Ottoman Empire; his memories were of an old Middle East that no longer existed. The family consisted of eight sisters and four brothers. One brother was killed by a British soldier during the Mandate for Palestine, the quarter-century-long period of British control over what is now Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan.

The Tarazi family home was a large villa covered in brightly colored flowers. As his wealth grew, Attalah’s father acquired more and more land, which he eventually passed on to his children. Attalah was due to take his university exams in 1967, but they were canceled because of the Six-Day War. He crossed the border to study in Egypt, where he received his medical degree in 1973, just as another war was starting. For many years, he worked as a surgeon at one of Gaza’s smaller hospitals, where one of his cousins is now the administrator. He now operates at Dar al-Shifa, an overcrowded, underfunded government hospital.

Attalah told me Christians in Gaza are generally in better health than other Palestinians, but he doesn’t treat only Christians. “We are not that far apart,” he said. “We have good relations with Hamas. They are my patients.” He paused and added, “they heal the same as everyone else.”

Another Sunday, Elham Fara, the organist I’d met at the church the previous Sunday, took me to tea with a family who lived in her building. Like most of the people in the building, the family was Christian. We parked and climbed over piles of trash—the amount of rubbish in Gaza never ceases to amaze me—to arrive at an unlovely gray concrete high rise in the midst of a wasteland.

The electricity was out, which meant a long hike up stairs and awkwardly using the flashlight on our telephones when the door finally opened. “For Christians or Muslims, this is intolerable,” Boolus, a 21-year-old dentistry student who spoke on condition of anonymity, said in greeting. He pointed up at the fans that were not working. “No electricity. We are on the seventh floor. My father has a heart condition and has to climb the stairs every day. We have no clean water. The thing is, we are Christians; we suffer. But all of us, all Gazans, suffer the same deprivation.”

Only when he got to al-Azhar University in Gaza at the age of 18 did he suddenly feel like a minority.

There were wool tapestries depicting the Last Supper and other Christian imagery on the walls. There was a small electric organ, and as we drank tea and ate watermelon, Fara sat down and began to play “Old Black Joe,” a melancholy parlor song written by Stephen Foster in 1860. In one corner of the room were instruments, music stands, and a speaker. Boolus and his brother played cello and trumpet while their father, Maher, joined them on the piano.

“We are all Christians.” Boolus shrugged. “It’s the same God.” Boolus—the Arabic version of Paul—was named after St. Paul. He is an Orthodox Christian but prays at the Catholic church. As a child, he went to a Catholic school, and he never noticed any discrimination. He described himself as living “in a Christian bubble.” Only when he got to al-Azhar University in Gaza at the age of 18 did he suddenly feel like a minority. “The first thing people ask you—teachers, students—is, ‘are you Christian?’”

Every Christmas and Easter, the family applies for permits to go to Bethlehem. Usually, not all members of the family get one, which means they are separated on their most important holidays. The previous Christmas, Boolus got one but his father didn’t.

Fara, as if on cue, began to play “Jingle Bells” on the organ.

Fara wanted to leave Gaza to find a better job, but he couldn’t stand the thought of leaving his close-knit family. Studying is a futile endeavor, he said, because he knows there is no reward in Gaza, no job at the end.

He also yearned for stability. Boolus said his father had lived through the Six-Day War in 1967 and the many uprisings and crackdowns since then, “and he deserves some peace and freedom from worrying.” His parents, who are both government workers, had been receiving only half their salaries since the most recent political falling out between Hamas and the Palestinian National Authority in 2017. “So we are being punished by our own people,” Boolus said glumly.

He took a slice of watermelon and handed me a plate. “This is what happens to normal people. You should study; then you should work. But in Gaza, you study and then stay at home. When I graduate, I will be the 3,000th dentistry graduate. Maybe 500 are actually going to get a job.”

Boolus said he most likely will eventually leave Gaza and get a master’s degree, then return.

“It’s my people,” he said. “They need dentists. And doctors. And lawyers. If all the professional people leave for a better life, who will represent us?”

Janine di Giovanni is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, the winner of multiple journalism awards, and the author of The Vanishing: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets. Twitter: @janinedigi

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