Gaza Christians upset over 'forced conversions'

By Judith Sudilovsky
Posted Aug 6, 2012

[Ecumenical News International, Jerusalem] The small Christian community of Gaza is in a state of uproar and has held an uncommon public protest against the Islamic Hamas government over what they say are forced conversions of two Christians in recent weeks.

Led by Gaza’s Greek Orthodox Archbishop Alexious, the protesters gathered on July 21 in front of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Perfidious in Gaza City. They said they felt growing pressure from Gaza Muslims to convert, although there is no official Hamas policy for the conversion of Christians.

“We are afraid more young people will be forced to convert,” one Christian who asked not to be named told ENInews. “If they want to convert of their own free will, okay, but why keep them away from their families?”

They said 24-year-old Ramez al-Amash was kidnapped from his home, and that a young mother, 32-year-old Hiba Abu Dawoud, along with her three daughters was also forced to convert to Islam. A video on a pro-Hamas website TV showing Abu Dawoud and her daughters wearing traditional Muslim dress and saying they willingly converted to Islam was made under duress, said family members.

Her now-estranged husband told the Associated Press that Abu Dawoud had complained during her university studies about the pressure she felt from her Muslim colleagues to convert.

But al-Amash and Abu Dawoud said they came to the decision on their own through careful deliberation through their exposure to Islam during university studies and willingly embraced the Muslim faith.

The families said they were prevented from seeing their children while the converts themselves said they had gone into hiding out of fear of repercussions from their families. Al-Amash told Reuters he wanted to return home as long as his mother would accept his conversion, and was home one day later.

However, Gaza Christians said they feel uneasy. “We aren’t safe anymore,” Gaza City resident Josef Elias, 44, told the Associated Press. “This is a conspiracy against our existence in the Holy Land.”

AP quoted Hamas government minister Bassem Naim as saying the Christians were part of the Palestinian people and had “the full right to practice their faith.”

Fewer than 3,000 Christians live among Gaza’s 1.7 million Muslims as Christians have left the Gaza Strip during a five-year-old Israeli blockade. They say they are trying to escape a crumbling economy and growing Islamic extremism which includes efforts to convert them since the Hamas government took power in 2007 and restricts civil freedoms from drinking alcohol to ways of dress.

According to media reports, ten Christians are known to have converted in the past eight years. In recent years Christian institutions have been attacked by Muslim hardliners and one Christian bookstore owner was murdered.