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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 December 2005, 15:22 GMT
Middle East Christians: Gaza pastor
Hanna Massad
Hanna: "We have had some sad Christmases in the past"
Hanna Massad is the pastor of Gaza Baptist Church, one of only three churches serving the 2,000 Christians living among Gaza Strip's 1.3 million inhabitants.

He was born into a Greek Orthodox family in Gaza, but later started attending the Baptist church.

After spending eight years studying in the US, he returned to become the church's first native Gazan pastor. As part of a BBC News Website series on Christians in the Middle East, he describes his life.

Christians are a minority here, and as evangelicals we are a minority within a minority.

We have lived side by side with our neighbours for a long time, and we thank God it is peaceful, but at the same time you cannot really fully live your Christian life here and have full freedom to share your faith. It's hard to find your full identity.

You have to be very careful and very wise. From time to time we receive different kinds of threats. Our library is the only public Christian library in Gaza and it has been set on fire twice in the past.

We minister to about 150 people throughout the week, plus 80-100 children and teenagers. We have two services on Sunday, plus women's, students and youth groups during the week- almost every day there is something going on.

Most of our congregation are originally from Greek Orthodox or Catholic backgrounds. We also have a few from other faiths - such as Muslims - who like to come and listen.

Total population: 3.76m
Estimated Christians: 40,000-90,000
% Christian: 1.1-2.4%
Main churches: Greek Orthodox and Catholic
Issues: Falling numbers, economic decline, occupation

Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and we have to reflect Him so, as much as we can, by His grace, we try to keep good relationships with all different groups.

The last five years have been very difficult years for all the Palestinians - Muslims and Christians - and God has helped us to express this kind of love and peace through relief work.

Because of the situation, people are not able to provide food for their children. We have been providing food for families - more than 99% of them Muslims - in the refugee camps. We also help people visit the doctor and arrange to pay for their prescriptions.

We try not just to deliver the food, but to have a relationship with them, to express God's love. We usually even ask if we can pray for them and most of them allow us to do that.

When we see the suicide bombings, it's very sad.

As Christians we cry for both sides, for our children - the Palestinians and also for the Jews.

In 1948 my family lost a lot of land inside Israel. We have official documents at home to prove it, but we are not able to do anything with them.

Hanna Massad and his family
Hanna [pictured with his family] worries that many Christians are leaving
I think I have forgiven Israel - I'm not able to do it on my own, but by God's grace, because He has forgiven me, I am able to forgive others.

Unfortunately, however, there are many Christians leaving. I think for many of them, if they have a chance to leave, they will leave.

You hear it when you visit people - they are very concerned about how their children will grow up in this kind of environment. They feel it's dangerous, it's not healthy - the bombings scare the children.

We have had some very sad Christmases in the past. Sometimes it hasn't been very safe to stay late in the church.

The church ceiling has fallen down maybe six times when Israel has been bombing nearby. Things like that - it's life in Gaza.

This Christmas we feel a little more freedom because Israel has left the settlements and the border with Egypt has been opened.

At the moment our children and teenagers are practising for a Christmas play, and on the 24 and 25th we will have services. We will also visit one another in the Christian community.

For the time being, it's very difficult, but we hope things will improve. When the economic situation improves we hope also the people who are fundamentalist will start to open up and accept the other - even if the other is a little different from them.

We keep hoping because, without hope we are not able to continue.

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