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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 December 2007, 11:43 GMT
Christmas under Hamas rule
By Katya Adler
BBC News, Gaza City

Earlier this year, the Islamist Hamas party took control of Gaza, home to a thriving Christian community now preparing to celebrate their first Christmas under Hamas rule.

Statue in Latin Rite church Gaza City
Palestinian Christians are known as Nasserine - the people of Nazareth

Manawel Musallam - priest, headmaster and Gazan - is a rotund, avuncular man, fond of wearing berets.

I have come to his office to ask how Christians in Gaza were faring on this, their first Christmas under the full internal control of Hamas.

"You media people!" Father Musallam boomed at me when I first poked my head around his door.

"Hamas this, Hamas that. You think we Christians are shaking in our ghettos in Gaza? That we're going to beg you British or the Americans or the Vatican to rescue us?" he asked.

"Rescue us from what? From where? This is our home."

Extended family

The pupils at the Holy Family School, Gaza City, all call Manawel Musallam "Abunah" - Our Father in Arabic.

His is a huge family of 1,200 children and, although the school is part-funded by the Vatican, here, as in all of Gaza, Christians are the minority.

Father Manawel Musallam
Our identity is a multi-layered one
Father Manawel Musallam

Ninety-nine percent of the pupils here are Muslim. This is one of the reasons Fr Musallam says he does not fear the Islamists.

"They should be afraid. Not me," he chuckled.

"Their children are under my tutelage, in my school. Hamas mothers and fathers are here at parents' day along with everyone else."

But there is more that binds Christians and Muslims in Gaza than their children's shared playground.

After the bloody scenes of Palestinian infighting this year, it is easy to assume Gazan society is irreconcilably split - both politically and along religious lines.

Gaza City map

There were those chilling incidents in June when men with beards were shot for looking like Islamists.

Men without beards were shot by Islamist extremists who thought they were non-believers, even traitors.

But actually the situation is far less clear cut.

Take the music room-cum-prayer hall at the Holy Family School.

Nativity play

On one of the walls hang huge photos of what the irreverent might be tempted to describe as the Gazan Catholic's Holy Trinity - the Pope, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and the (Muslim) Palestinian president.

I found a group of 10-year-olds on stage, rehearsing their Nativity play, watched, with great enthusiasm, by a group of their Muslim friends.

Patriarch Michel Sabbah
Nobody can tell us Christians how to dress, how to live or how to pray
Patriarch Michel Sabbah

Mary and Joseph squatted on stage. The girl playing Mary, clasped a tube of scrunched-up brown paper wrapped in a scarf, which, for rehearsal purposes, was posing as baby Jesus.

"You see," Fr Musallam told me, as he gazed indulgently at the goings-on on stage. "Our identity is a multi-layered one."

"Of course, I am a Christian believer, but politically I am a Palestinian Muslim. I resist Israel's military occupation, obviously not with weapons.

"The Jihad can never be mine but with my words, my sermons, I am a Palestinian priest."

On stage, four wise men, instead of three (probably due to a casting struggle) were paying their respects to the paper bag.

"We have lived alongside Muslims here since Islam was born," said Fr Musallam, waving his arm at the stage.

Nun in Gaza City
The Latin church bells are played, quietly, from a tape

"They have a special word for us, the Christians of Palestine. They call us Nasserine - the people of Nazareth. They recognise that we have always been here.

"Even the more extreme Muslims see a difference between us and other Christians they regard as enemies and call Crusaders."

There is no evidence to suggest the Hamas government here officially discriminates against Christians but its takeover in Gaza - its military wing's leading role in armed resistance against Israel, along with the Islamic Jihad faction - have all led to the increasing Islamisation of Gazan society.

And that has encouraged some extremist Muslims to take action.

A Christian bookshop owner was killed here a couple of months ago.

There was a kidnap attempt on another Christian recently.

And a number of Christian families we spoke to say they had received death threats.

They question Hamas' willingness to take action to protect them.

However, it was under Hamas armed escort that we met the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, on a special pre-Christmas visit to Gaza.

It was quite a spectacle.

The Patriarch, dressed in a purple cassock, stepped out of a black, shiny Mercedes at the Latin Church in Gaza City.

'God's creatures'

A crowd of police cars screeched to a halt all around him, lights flashing and sirens screaming. Bearded gunmen dressed in black jumped out to guard him.

In previous years, the Patriarch's Christmas sermon has concentrated on the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli military occupation but this year he preached steadfastness in the face of intimidation by Islamist fanatics.

Latin Rite church Gaza City
Christians have lived alongside Islam in Palestine since its beginnings

"They forget we are all God's creatures," he told a concerned-looking congregation.

"But nobody can tell us Christians how to dress, how to live or how to pray".

The patriarch called on the Hamas government to take responsibility and to protect the Christian citizens of Gaza, along with everyone else.

As the crowded church was belting out hallelujahs, I stepped into the church courtyard for some fresh air.

The Muslim call to prayer was beginning to echo from the myriad of mosques all around.

I thought how this reflected the situation in Gaza in Christmas 2007 - that while the muezzin were on loudspeaker, the church bells here are played from a cassette tape.

A nervous young nun adjusted the volume - loud enough to peal through the church but not to penetrate its walls - it might risk offending Muslim Gazans passing by.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 22 December, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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