“When someone asks me what my identity is, I answer that first and foremost, I am a Palestinian Arab with Arab roots and then last comes my Christian religion,” Dr. Anton Shuhaibar, a physician in his sixties, said as he sat playing chess with a friend at the YMCA in Gaza City on the eve of Orthodox Easter, which occurred last Sunday.
Shuhaibar has lived in Gaza City’s al-Zaytoun neighborhood along with others who share his faith, for several decades.
There are three churches in Gaza including Orthodox and Baptist places of worship, but the vast majority of Gaza’s estimated 3,000 Christians are Roman Catholic.
In addition, there are a number of large Christian institutions that provide services to the Islamic and Christian populations here alike. For example, the Episcopal Archdiocese of Jerusalem — which is affiliated with the Anglican church — operates a hospital in Gaza which treats thousands of people each year regardless of religion.
Asked if he planned to mark the Easter celebrations in the occupied West Bank cities of Jerusalem or Bethlehem, Shuhaibar replied firmly, “It is impossible for me to be stripped of my dignity and be subject to humiliation by a twenty-year-old Israeli soldier at the border crossing, where such a solider orders you to hold up your arms, get down your belt and take off your shirt.”
Ever since Israel imposed a strict blockade on the Gaza Strip some five years ago, travel restrictions have become ever tighter for Gaza’s 1.6 million residents.
Israeli authorities only allow a small number of people who must be over the age of 35 to travel to the West Bank for religious purposes. The permission process goes through the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Civil Affairs.
Living in harmony
Despite common media depictions of Gaza as being under harsh, Islamist rule, Dr. Shuhaibar emphasized the close ties between families regardless of religion.
Among the friends surrounding Shuhaibar at the YMCA was one of his closest and oldest, Abu Tawfiq Mustafa, who happens to be Muslim.
“Once my friend Abu Tawfiq had a heart attack and was admitted to the ICU. My wife got extremely worried and insisted that I should do something to save the life of my friend, though I am not a cardiac doctor,” Shuhaibar recounted.
Abu Tawfiq, a resident of the nearby Shujaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, has been a friend of Shuhaibar since the two were classmates.
“During our two major Muslim feasts and the feasts of our Christian neighbors, we exchange greetings among each other and also share food for these special occasions. We have never seen any kind of difference as far as our living together is concerned,” Mustafa, who is retired, said.
False claims about oppression of Christians in Gaza
“Anyone who dares to say that Islamists in Gaza have been repressing us Christians is absolutely wrong and false,” Kamal Tarazi, a Christian man in his forties, told The Electronic Intifada at the YMCA.
The interior of Gaza has been under the control of Hamas, an Islamist party, since it won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006.
“I am an ex-Palestinian prisoner and was detained by the Israeli occupation back in 1988 through 1993. We, Christians and Muslims alike, continue to live the same life and we share the same experiences and the same struggle against the same occupation,” Tarazi added.
Comments from passersby
Riham, 22, who only gave her first name, also said that she felt there had been no difference in terms of neighborly or friendly relations between Christians and Muslims in recent years. But, she said that sometimes as she walks down the street she hears comments from passersby because she does not cover her head.
“During university, I had to study six Islamic subjects along with my majority Muslim classmates, otherwise I wouldn’t have graduated,” Riham said.
“Our neighborhood ties with Muslims are pretty good. On our religious occasions, we send them some food and our neighbors send food to us,” said Riham, who volunteers as a social worker.
The Palestinian parliamentary system reserves some seats for Christians and in the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza, there is one Christian MP, but that body has not been functioning properly, since the deepening of the split between Hamas and Fatah since in 2007.
Not so bad, not so good
“Not so bad, not so good,” were the words Khalil Abu Shammala, director of the Al Dameer Association for Human Rights, used to describe Muslim-Christian relations in Gaza.
“For example, in 2008, we recorded a number of incidents, in which a Christian man was killed and some Christian[-owned] buildings were bombed by suspected Islamic extremists in the territory,” Abu Shammala said at his Gaza City office.
Abu Shammala suggested that for Christians, as a minority, the main issue is psychological pressure.
“For instance, over the past few years, many Christian women in Gaza have been forced to put on a headscarf, something that can be attributed to the change since 2007,” Abu Shammala explained. “But in general, I can assure you that we as a rights group have not received any formal complaint by any Christian group or individual about any kind of harassment or violence by individuals, groups or authorities in Gaza.”
Abu Shammala also emphasized the contribution that Christian institutions make to all of Gaza’s residents.
“Constantine Dabbagh is a well-known Christian figure, who heads a leading Christian charity called the Near East Council of Churches. This council has really helped empower Gaza society, especially impoverished people, irrespective of their faiths,” he said.
“We are like birds, who leave their eggs but definitely come back to their nests to bring about more birds,” Dr. Anton Shuhaibar reflected at the YMCA. “I have had the chance to leave Gaza to countries around the world. I had the chance to get British citizenship, but I refused to stay over there and wanted to come back to Palestine, to Gaza, where I am rooted.”
“In the US or in any other part of the world, I would have been only a number in a passport, but here in Gaza, I am well-established and I love it,” Shuhaibar said.
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.