By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife with BosNewsLife sources and reporting from the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem
GAZA CITY/JERUSALEM (BosNewsLife)– Christians in the Gaza Strip have mourned dozens of people who were killed when an Israeli air strike damaged a Baptist church while hitting a nearby police station, as part of Israel’s military campaign against the Islamic militant group Hamas, BosNewsLife established Friday, January 2.
News of the attack emerged as Hamas vowed revenge for an Israeli strike Thursday, January 1, that killed cleric Nizar Rayyan, the first senior leader of the group to die in the offensive. Israel’s seven-day offensive against Hamas killed nearly 420 Palestinians and wounded about 2,000 others, according to Palestinian sources.
The bombing near Gaza Baptist Church happened just before the Christian minority ushered in the New Year and underscored international concern that Christians in the Gaza Strip are in the crossfire between Israeli and Islamic attacks, BosNewsLife learned Friday, January 2.
Witnesses said the church was located right across the street from a police station which was targeted by Israelis. The church was nearly destroyed with windows blown and other damage reported. Israel’s government said it has been trying to avoid civilian casualties in one of the world’s most densely populated areas, but vowed to continue to target Hamas because it launches rockets deep into Israel.
The near church bombing however, meant disappointment for Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors USA, a group supporting Christians who are reportedly persecuted for their faith. “It brings back a lot of poignant memories for me, how joyous the time was when we were there to dedicate that building,” with Dutchman Anne van der Bijl, or ‘Brother Andrew’, who founded Open Doors and wrote bestsellers about his work.
“Now it’s obviously right there in the center of a great deal of destruction,” Moeller added. The church’s pastor, Hanna Massad, was already forced to flee the Middle East, Christians said. Of some 1.7 million people in the Gaza Strip, few Christians are left, with church estimates ranging from “hundreds” to up to 3,000, a far cry from previous numbers.
As fighting continued, Israel said Friday, January 2, it would allow hundreds of foreign passport holders to leave the Gaza Strip Friday, January 2, raising expectations of a ground offensive by thousands of Israeli troops stationed nearby. It was unclear how many Christians would be allowed to leave the region.
“It’s remarkable how much that the church is facing there,” Moeller said. “Yet the Christians [in Gaza] continue to pray; they continue to cry out to God; and when they can, reach out to their neighbors with comfort.” Christians have reportedly been meeting in small groups in homes to avoid being targeted by bombings or Islamic militants.
Besides Israeli attacks, Christians have faced new challenges after the Hamas
parliament in the Gaza Strip voted in favor of a law late December allowing courts to hand out sentences in the spirit of Islam, several Arabic media reported.
Such punishments include whipping, severing hands, crucifixion and hanging. The bill reserves death sentences to people who negotiate with a foreign government “against Palestinian interests” and engage in any activity that can “hurt Palestinian morale.”
Palestinian caught drinking or selling wine would suffer 40 lashes at the whipping post if the bill passes. Thieves caught red-handed would lose their right hand. There have been concerns the legislation could further undermine Christian activities in the Gaza Strip where there have been several attacks against the Christian minority.
In one of the most published incidents, the director of the Gaza Strip’s only known Christian bookstore was found dead last year, shortly after being abducted near his home, officials said.
Rami Khader Ayyad, 32, was discovered stabbed and shot to death in a street of Gaza City, the territory’s main city, in October, 2007, six months after his Teacher’s Bookshop of the Palestinian Bible Society was blown up by militants. Also read URGENT BREAKING NEWS: http://bosnewslife.com/4888-urgent-breaking-news-israel-launches-ground-offensive