CT has received two credible accounts regarding Gazan Christians as Israel's military campaign against Hamas militants ends its third week.
The first comes from Hanna Massad, exiled pastor of Gaza Baptist Church, the only evangelical congregation in the 25-mile coastal strip. The second comes from Cairo-based freelance journalist Philip Rizk, a Wheaton College graduate who lived in Gaza from 2005 to 2007. Both Massad and Rizk described the reality faced by Gazan evangelicals over the past three weeks.
Massad, currently in New Haven, Conn., speaks daily with his relatives and church family in Gaza. Many of its members fled Gaza for the West Bank in 2007 and 2008 when the Christian community was first caught between a Hamas-Fatah power struggle and then threatened by Islamic extremists (see previous coverage here). Today they are caught between Hamas and Israel. Here are his thoughts on the past three weeks of violence:
"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 Massad. "We weep also for the Israelis who have died, but the suffering is much more on the Gazans." Current AP estimates put the death toll at about 1,100 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.
Massad said Gazan Christians face the same reality as all civilians in Gaza: no electricity or running water, and little drinking water or food. Many Gazans, unable to leave the territory, are staying in their homes day after day, waiting out the bombings and fearful their house will be the next to become the collateral damage of Israeli rockets.
"Some families have left because their homes have become very dangerous," said Massad. "In other places, even though people want to leave, where could they go? They are stuck between closed borders with Israel and Egypt. Gazans are really stuck in this prison."
He recounted the Christian's community first casualty, Kristine, a 15-year-old girl with asthma. "She was so scared of the bombing that [Saturday the 3rd] she died out of fear. Her father, who is a doctor, was taking her to the hospital and she died in the car," said Massad. "It's very difficult as a human being, as a Christian, to see a family member crying loudly like a child when he has lost almost all his family."
Some of his congregation received permission from Israel to visit Bethlehem for Christmas. Israel started its bombing campaign two days later. Massad said his church was able to evacuate Pauline, the widow of martyred Christian bookstore manager Rami Ayyad, and their baby daughter Sama to the West Bank shortly after the bombing started.
Massad said reported damage to the building of Gaza Baptist Church - which has suffered six collapsed roofs in three years of Israeli bombings - has been exaggerated. The church's windows were shattered on the first day of airstrikes when Israel bombed the main police station about 10 meters away.
Gazan Christians halted their ministry and outreach efforts last spring in the wake of Ayyad's murder because of safety concerns, but continued to meet weekly on Sunday evenings. Now it is too dangerous to travel to the church, which has closed its library and school until the fighting ceases.
Massad urges international evangelicals to pray for Christians in Gaza, and to speak out against the fighting.
"We as Christians need to have a voice," said Massad. "Even though we may disagree with the ideology and theology of Hamas, we as Christians are commanded by the Lord to speak against injustice. If we are not speaking out about innocent people being killed, then we are breaking the commands of the Lord. When we see children in front of our eyes being murdered, we cannot be silent."
Massad said the future of Gaza, and what outcome would prove best for Gazan Christians, is uncertain. An immediate ceasefire would stop the civilian casualties. But Gazan Christians would still remain threatened by an increasingly Islamist Hamas, which in December voted for a law allowing harsh sharia'h punishments for crimes.
"[Gazan Muslims] have been thinking they have been humiliated as Muslims because they are not following the Koran, so let's go more towards God and God will help us overcome if we become more religious," said Massad.
He believes that many Gazan Muslims will become more militant in the wake of Israel's current military and economic actions against Gaza. "They have been mistreated and isolated from the world for a long time. Their problems have not been solved. This war is just making people feel more desperate," said Massad.
"In the West, people want things to be black-and-white, but in this situation there is not really a black or white," he said. "Bombing and rockets will not solve the problem and bring security for Israel. We have been going in this circle of violence back and forth for many years."
"We hope and pray that people on both sides will realize weapons and rockets will not solve problems," said Massad, "but that both sides would be willing to sit and talk and find a solution by listening to each other."
Massad said the faith of his congregation has deepened amid the difficulties of the past year. "In the fire of persecution, you start to realize your priorities," he said. "We shouldn't be surprised if there is suffering in our life, because that was the life of our Lord who taught us what love is all about."
"May God help us all to live by the spirit of forgiveness," said Massad. "To live by the Sermon on the Mount, to want to bless those who persecute us, this will be a very powerful witness in the Middle East."
CT also spoke with freelance journalist Philip Rizk by cell phone as he returned from the Gazan-Egyptian border to Cairo. Rizk lived in Gaza from 2005 to 2007 and is a Wheaton College graduate. Here is his account of the humanitarian situation faced by Gazan Christians:
"There is absolutely no distinction between Christians and Muslims at this point," said Rizk regarding the humanitarian crisis in the 25-mile coastal strip. Most Gazans have lost electricity. Many families are leaving their homes, damaged by missiles, to take their chances in the streets.
"Gaza today is simply a different kind of concentration camp, closed from all sides," said Rizk. "I don't have words to explain what is going on inside. People are waiting for death in their homes, and they have nowhere to flee."
This reality is captured for Rizk in the story of a taxi driver and his family of 11 in northern Gaza, refugees from a village near the modern-day Israeli city of Beer Sebea and among the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians relocated into the Gaza Strip when Israel was created in 1948.
Last year Rizk spent New Year's Eve with husband Jamal, his wife, and their nine children ages 3 to 18 in their two-room makeshift home. Last week they Skyped and text messaged after leaflets dropped on Jamal's neighborhood warning residents to leave.
"Gaza is one of most populated places on earth. When bombings happen, you stay home," said Rizk. Jamal told him: "We are not fleeing again like we did the last time [in 1948]. If we are going to die, we are going to die in our home."
Many Gazans hid in their homes during Israel's weeklong aerial campaign. Israel's subsequent ground incursion from four directions has made it an open question whether the streets are safer.
Rizk tells the story of a Christian family living in Gaza City in a 24-unit apartment building where only five families remain while the rest have fled in panic. The families are sleeping together on the ground floor hoping it is safer after a building three doors down was hit by an Israeli rocket.
"Nowhere is safe. Absolutely nowhere," said Rizk. "This Christian family decided not to leave their home because it was the estimate they made, while three quarters of the families in their building decided to go. You risk staying in your apartment, you risk leaving your apartment. You risk in everything you do."
Food is scarce. Most bakeries have closed for lack of flour, and those still with flour and electricity ration out food to lines 3 to 4 hours long. Many Gazan families are making bread in their homes over fires, but wood is also rapidly running out.
"I don't know how many of these people are actually surviving," said Rizk, citing estimates that 85 percent of Gazans were already dependent on food aid during Israel's yearlong blockade of imports and exports into the territory in the wake of Hamas's democratic election in 2007.
"The people I have known, they are living a slow death," said Rizk. Gazans live in a world with no jobs, no exports, and few opportunities for students to advance in life.
Hospitals are running out of equipment and medications, and many ambulances have no gasoline. Dr. Attallah Tarazi, a Christian surgeon at Shifaa Hospital, told Rizk that two of his ambulances have been hit by Israeli fire and six paramedics killed. Tarazi said almost all of the cases he has seen at the hospital are civilians. Many are women and children.
Rizk said most of the dead and wounded in Gazan hospitals came from the first day of bombings when Israel targeted most government buildings, all located in densely-packed areas. Those injured were either inside the government buildings or children walking home from school and other passersby. His sources say about half of the Gazans in hospitals are children and bystanders without connections to the Hamas militants Israel is pursuing in the densely populated Gaza Strip.
"Israel is saying they want to wipe out Hamas. But their attack is making no distinction between Hamas and non-Hamas because they cannot do it in such a populated area," said Rizk. "And Hamas supporters are becoming even more hardline supporters at this point. This is not the way to wipe them out. Hamas is more than half the population - Israel cannot wipe out 750,000 people."
Rizk advocates that international Christian observers understand the background of the current conflict. "It's not as simple as one side is good and the other side is bad," he said. "The eye of the world on Gaza right now is a temporary thing, but things need to change for the long term."
Rizk has been involved with getting shipments of medicine into Gaza across the Egyptian border. "I don't identify with either Hamas or Fatah, but that doesn't stop me from trying to play a small role on the humanitarian side to show the people of Gaza that we care," he said.