By Stuart Littlewood
Phoebe Greenwood, writing from Gaza City in The Guardian on 23 December reported:
'There hasn't been a Christmas tree in Gaza City's main square since Hamas pushed the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza in 2007 and Christmas is no longer a public holiday.'
The headline said Hamas had “cancelled Christmas”. Could this possibly be true?
When I visited Gaza in late 2007 Fr Manuel Mussallam, the feisty old priest in charge of the Catholic community, took me and others to meet Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and some of his colleagues. Relations between Christian and Muslim - or at least between the Catholic community and the Hamas government - seemed strong enough and friendly enough for Christmas celebrations to be left undisturbed.
The very idea of a ban actually makes me smile because Scotland, a Christian country of course, saw Christmas as a papist festival and for centuries discouraged it. When I lived there it wasn't even a public holiday.
But back to the Strip… Is Hamas being beastly to Gaza’s Christians? Has Phoebe Greenwood got her story straight? I wrote to her at The Guardian, pointing out that revelations of this kind in the popular British press undo the hard work activists put in to help the Palestinian cause. Could she please throw more light onto it? I've had no reply.
I’m in England and unable to contact Hamas. Phoebe Greenwood is on the spot. Shouldn’t someone from Mr Haniyeh's office be given a chance to comment?
As for Fr Manuel, he has finally retired and left Gaza. The school he ran there, part-funded by the Vatican, had 1200 pupils. About 1000 were Muslim and some of these the children of Hamas leaders.
The relationship between Muslim and Christian in the Holy Land, and the potential for friction, is frequently poked and prodded simply to make mischief.
Archbishop Theodosius Hanna (Greek Orthodox Church), on a visit to Ireland a year ago, told politicians: "The problem in Palestine has nothing to do with religion – it is not a religious issue. It is not a conflict of Christians, Muslims and Jewish people. It is a conflict between those who are the holders of a rightful cause and those who took away that right by military might.
“Palestinian people as a whole, including Christians and Muslims, have said repeatedly that what they want is peace. We want two states that live together in peace. However, the reality on the ground is that we are extremely far away from that goal because Israel does not want peace."
Fr Manuel, who accompanied the Archbishop, told his listeners what happened when the Christian school in Gaza was targeted.
“Five Hamas ministers visited the school after it was attacked and promised they would repair the damage… A Hamas minister, a Muslim, picked up the Holy Bible thrown on the ground, kissed it and put it back on the altar. He said Muslims were forbidden to do such things to the Bible. Hamas paid more than $122,000 to repair all the damage caused.
“Afterwards I met the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh. When he embraced me he said this, and we believed it. He said: “Go to your family, but be assured that Hamas will employ weapons against Muslims to protect Christians in Gaza.” This is the reality. Christians in Palestine are not suffering persecution, because we are not considered to be a religious community, but rather the people of Palestine. We have the same rights and the same obligations.”
It is hardly surprising that Israeli oppression aided and endorsed by western Christendom, and the grinding poverty this evil alliance creates in the occupied territories, drives some Muslims into the arms of Islamic extremism. Hamas insists that extremist acts are incidents not policy.
Fr Manuel went on to tell the Irish what things were really like under military occupation. "We have spoken to Israel for more than18 years and the result has been zero. We have signed agreements here and there at various times and then when there is a change in the government of Israel we have to start again from the beginning. We ask for our life and to be given back our Jerusalem, to be given our state and for enough water to drink. We want to be given more opportunity to reach Jerusalem. I have not seen Jerusalem since 1990."
He described the nightmarish system of entry and exit permits, which Israel invariably refused. "We want to see an end to this occupation, and please do not ask us to protect those who are occupying our territory."
A week ago, on Christmas Day, the Voice of Palestine website ran this news item:
"DAMASCUS - Hamas Movement have offered its best wishes to all Palestinian Christians in occupied Palestine, and other countries on the occasion of Prophet Jesus' birth and wished them a happy holiday.
"'On the occasion of rejoicing the birth of Prophet Jesus peace of God be upon him, the Islamic Movement of Hamas extends its sincere wishes to all our fellow Christians in their homeland Palestine, the cradle of prophecies and the land of divine messages, as well as to the Palestinian Christians in the Arab and Islamic countries and the whole world,' Hamas said in a press release on Saturday.In the past Hamas has shown great respect for the Christian tradition of Christmas and, I hear, Hamas officials in Bethlehem used to dress up as Santa Claus to distribute gifts to Christian children. So the question remains: has Hamas really become such a Scrooge as to torpedo Christmas with a tree ban?
"Hamas wished this occasion to be an opportunity for uniting the Palestinian people and pooling the efforts of the world's free people to support the Palestinian cause and protect the Islamic and Christian holy sites."
If so, it’s a sure-fire way to lose friends and alienate people.
- Stuart Littlewood's book Radio Free Palestine can now be read on the internet by visiting www.radiofreepalestine.org.uk. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.