Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Christians and Hamas (II)

Here is the piece I promised last week on the prospects for Palestinian Christians under a new government led by Hamas. It was a pleasant suprise.

GAZA CITY, March 2, 2006 (AFP) - Hundreds of Muslims pressed their way down the narrow street that leads to the Greek Orthodox church of Saint Perfilios in Gaza City, as the Islamic world raged over the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed.
They poured into the small square off the street, where the church and its offices are located.
Father Artemios Dimitriades, 28, a priest from Greece who has spent more than half his life in the Holy Land, went down with his bishop to meet them.
But he had no fear that the church would be stoned or set on fire, as had happened elsewhere in the Muslim world, because the crowds included a large group of Christians who were also offended by the caricatures.
And also because one of the Muslims was carrying a framed copy of the Covenant of Omar, a document little known outside Christian and Islamic circles in the Holy Land.
The Al-Uhdah Al-Omariyah was signed in 683 by the Muslim conqueror of Jerusalem, Caliph Omar bin al-Khattab. In it, he promised the city's patriarch, Sophronios, to protect the lives, property, churches and worship of Christians.
It guaranteed that they would "not be coerced in their religion."
Among the marchers that day in late January were members of Hamas, the radical Islamist group that is poised to form the next Palestinian government after its shock election win.
Since Hamas's victory, there have been murmurings of unease by some Christians that the new government might seek to impose rigid Islamic law, with visions of women being forced to wear headscarves and harsh punishments imposed for common crime.
Moreover, there are fears about mandatory segregation of boys and girls in schools and of children being forced to take classes in Islamic religion.
The future under "Hamas could be kind of scary," one Roman Catholic priest in Jerusalem, a Westerner, told AFP.
But Father Artemios and others in Gaza, both Christian and Muslim, say such concerns are baseless.
And if anyone has apparent cause to feel threatened, it is the Christian community here of around only 3,000 souls among some 1.4 million Muslims.
Artemios says "we are not afraid of anything, because the Muslims and the Christians here, from the time Islam came, are living in peace and love."
That was the message which he said the marchers brought to the church: "We don't have any problems with the Christians. We respect each other and we believe in freedom of religion."
But what if all this optimism proves to be ill-founded? What if, as a more radical Hamas leader recently proposed, the new government were to seek to impose Islamic law, or sharia?
One answer comes from Hosam al-Taweel, 42, an independent who was elected as one of the six Christians guaranteed seats in the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council.
He got the highest number of votes of the six, because he had the backing not only of Hamas itself but also of other nationalist groups.
"Hamas knows that Palestinian society contains many different shapes, ideas and political colors, and knows also that if it were to try to force the whole of society to act against their beliefs and against their will, it will lose in the long run," he said.
As Christians, "we are sharing the same problems, the same suffering from the (Israeli) occupation, the high rate of unemployment, the bad economic situation. We are living in a united society; there is no kind of division, or any kind of discrimination" by Muslims.
And he points to the Covenant of Omar, saying both Christians and Muslims see it as having the force of law, even after more than 13 centuries.
Today, the Palestinian Basic Law, or constitution, reflects that. It stipulates that "freedom of belief and performance of religious rituals are guaranteed (unless) they violate public order or public morals."
Taweel's uncle, Anton Shuhaiber, scornfully dismissed "foreigners always asking when they come here, 'will Christians be worse off under Hamas?'"
Shuhaiber is a 68-year-old doctor who studied in England.
He is also a member of the church council and the board of the local Young Men's Christian Association, which he says has "left its fingerprints" on Gazan society through the cross-community work it does.
He counted as friends Hamas leaders Ahmed Yassin and Abdulaziz Rantissi, both assassinated by Israel, and points to a spot on his sofa where they used to sit.
"I am not afraid of Hamas, even of the Islamic religion," he said.
For Christians, who read the Koran carefully and with an open mind, "there is no fear." The real problem, he said, is the conflict now between an increasingly godless Western culture and Islamic culture.
"We have a role of working to stop that conflict. And our role is to get the (two sides) to understand each other well."


Dave said...

I assume that the Orthodox Christians there don't speak openly about Islam being a cult that broke from Christianity like they do in other places? I would really be interested to know if the term "christian" there isn't like a cultural or political label. Do the Christians seek to show the Muslims the error and certian death that Islam leads to or do they just shut up and put up in order to get along?

Most of us in the West only hear stories without having the first hand knowledge that you are accumulating.

albion said...

Interesting you should raise that question, Dave, as I did with Fr Artemios.

I would first like to deal with part of it, as you raised the same issue in an earlier comment, and I didn't say anything at the time.

The word Christian in Palestine is no more a cultural or political label than it is anywhere else; if anything, it is probably far less so. There are "Christmas and Easter Christians" everwhere. But in the Middle East, I would not generally think it an epithet one would take on for merely cultural or political reasons, because Christians are in a minority virtually everwhere, and mildly to severely persecuted in most places.

As to your broader question, I think you have to understand that Christian witness in the Muslim world cannot be carried out in the same way it is elsewhere because of the dangers that can be involved. And I speak here of danger to the proselyte more than to the proselytiser. Remember, that Islam prescribes death to apostates, ie those who renounce their faith. In some countries, this happens; in others, it just results in people being socially ostracised or losing their jobs.

Now to the question I put to Fr Artemios. We certainly didn't get in to the matter of "error and certain death." But nor was it a matter of "shut up and put up."

There does not seem to be any direct proselytisation among Muslims. But Christians in the Muslim world tend to work indirectly to that end, through works of charity, schools, etc.

I quoted to him St Francis of Assisi's famous dictum: "Preach always and, when necessary, use words." He said that pretty much summed it up.

Dave said...


Thank you for giving me perspective. I am encouraged to hear our brothers and sisters love the faith as much if not more than we sensitive sunday Christians who flip a switch to be Holy on Sunday and then go screw our clients first thing Monday morning.

One of my heros in the faith is St. Nicolas Basdanis the New Martyr. An example of what muslims do to apostates. Fools for Christ just don't have the same appeal these days I guess.

St. Seraphim of Sarov said that if we acquire the Spirit of Peace that a thousand souls around us will be saved. I think that harkens back to the story of evangelizing using words when neccesary.

I think here in America contemporary evangelicals dont view the old churches as even being Christian. They sure have been quiet about the atrocities in Kosovo. Protestant want not only to share their faith but make muslims part of Americas civil religion (reformed/baptist.

I pray for the servants of God in the Holy Lands. I think Anglicansim could be a very good vessel to carry the message and plight of Arab and Palestinian Christians to the world.
If a Greek Priest with a funny beard tries to speak with contemporary evangelicals they are first question whether the Priest is "saved" and then they are going to try an convert him to a christianity that seeks to raise money to rebuild the temple in order to bring about the second comming. If an Anglican priest or laity engages the evangelicals in terms they can relate to, there might be some way to educate.

Excuse my wandering thoughts. I took ambien sleep aid and have fallen into a drunk like state. Off to bed.

I really enjoy having access to you, your stories and travels strengthen my faith. Pax

Fr Robert Hart said...

(Albion-My e-mails have not gotten through, it seems, during your whole trip).

When the Christian Doctor says that he is not afraid of the radical muslims, he is probably saying it out of fear. They live under intimidation. The irony is that, no matter how much Israel can be blamed for various problems, the situation will continue now to get worse than it has ever has been. Hamas will persecute them and try to impose sharia; if not this year then soon. And, the claim about having always lived in peace is simply a fairy tale.