God in Gaza
Three weeks of Israel-Hamas fighting left Gaza's beleaguered Christian community beginning 2009 in their worst situation since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
"We as Palestinian Christians are very saddened to see those on both sides killed from bombing and rockets lobbed back and forth, but Israel has exaggerated their response," said Hanna Massad, exiled pastor of Gaza Baptist Church, the only evangelical congregation in the 25-mile coastal strip. "We weep for the Israelis who have died, but the suffering is much more on the Gazans."
The January 18 ceasefire ended a 22-day Israeli offensive that killed 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis and injured and displaced thousands in an attempt to end years of Hamas rockets into southern Israel.
Christian humanitarian aid trickled into Gaza through limited checkpoints during the shaky ceasefire. Much of Gaza remained without electricity or running water. Bakeries saw hundreds wait hours in line for bread.
Israeli missiles hit Hamas targets but also destroyed civilian buildings in the densely packed territory, including a Christian medical clinic in Shijaiya that had provided free health care to the poor since 1968. Atallah Tarazi, a Christian surgeon at Gaza City's Shifaa Hospital, said two ambulances were hit and six of his paramedics killed, and lamented the high percentage of civilian casualties received by his hospital.
Gaza's Christian community of 2,500 suffered at least three deaths in the fighting—including 14-year-old Christine Turok, who died of a heart attack from fear—and Gaza Baptist Church and the Palestinian Bible Society were damaged by Israeli airstrikes.
A broad cross-section of Christian agencies mobilized aid to Gaza and southern Israel. The Baptist World Alliance provided medical treatment in Cairo for wounded Gazans, and launched a counseling program for children in heavily mortared Sderot.
The World Evangelical Alliance urged for peace and empathy for victims on both sides. "The God who is near wants to bless the Jewish people but not at the expense of the Arab people, and He wants to bless the Arab people but not at the expense of the Jewish people," said Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the alliance, which represents 400 million evangelicals worldwide.
Evangelicals broadly condemned Hamas's missile attacks yet debated Israel's claim to self-defense versus the setback of such aggressive action to prospects for peace in the region. "There is no excuse for Hamas firing rockets into Israel," said Gary Burge, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and a prominent evangelical authority on the Middle East. "[Yet because] over 100 Arabs have died for every one Israeli … [this will] poison an entire generation in Gaza who will be determined for a lifetime never to make peace with their northern neighbor."
Yohanna Katanacho, dean of Bethlehem Bible College, expressed concern about the wedge the war might create between Palestinian Christians and Messianic Jews. He hoped a common pursuit of peace would offer forgiveness but also advocate justice in a war where 100 eyes were taken for every eye.
"Frankly, it is hard to accept the perception that we can be political enemies but religious brothers and sisters," said Katanacho. "Our relationship with the Son of God must transform our political perceptions in a way that will make us more critical of the policies of our governments, more vocal of our support of divine mercy, love, and justice. … If we claim we are one, then we shouldn't respond as if we are two different sides."