Gaza Baptist Church used to draw hundreds of Palestinian worshipers to its two Sunday services. But on a recent Sunday in January, less than 10 people risked attending the only evangelical church in the 25-mile coastal strip.
Palestinian evangelicals, a group of hundreds living among 1.5 million Muslims, have been fleeing the Gaza Strip for the West Bank in response to increased violence and threats from Islamic extremists. In October, Rami Ayyad, the 29-year-old manager of Gaza's only Christian bookstore, was kidnapped and murdered. Then on February 15, a group of 14 masked gunmen forcibly entered the ymca offices and set off a bomb in the library, burning thousands of books.
"In Gaza, when you say, 'The Lord is my shepherd,' you have to mean it literally," said Hanna Massad, displaced pastor of the Baptist church. "The Lord is the only one who can protect you." Massad left Gaza in November for personal safety; eight families in his church fled with him.
Life for Gazan Christians became more difficult when Hamas seized control of the 140-square-mile territory in June. Conditions have also worsened due to Israel's security efforts, which have constricted the incoming flow of food, electricity, and fuel. Israel tightened security in response to ongoing Hamas rocket attacks and the first suicide bombing in Israel in three years.
"This is one of the toughest times we have seen," said Massad. His church has been seized twice by police forces and suffered a collapsed roof six times from Israeli missile strikes.
Severe economic hardship has been accompanied by increased threats from extremists since Hamas installed Shari'ah law in Gaza. Massad said his church members fear gathering in groups. Many believers no longer wear crosses, ...1