GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Christians in overwhelmingly Muslim Gaza have long fretted in private about the survival of their tiny community.
But their fears exploded publicly when two members of the flock recently converted to Islam. Christians staged a rare public protest, accusing Muslims of pulling followers from their faith.
The converts, who had been hiding to evade angry relatives, eventually surfaced and said they voluntarily changed religions. Gaza's ruling Islamic militant Hamas movement reiterated respect for freedom of worship and Christian institutions.
But the uproar highlighted the growing sense of vulnerability among Christians here. They are a dwindling minority among a mostly devout Muslim majority, mostly hemmed into the tiny sliver of land because of movement restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt. And they say some Muslims are doubling their efforts to convert them, emboldened by the atmosphere of Islamic fervor fostered by Hamas since it seized power in Gaza in 2007.
"We aren't safe anymore," said Josef Elias, a 44-year-old Christian from Gaza City. "This is a conspiracy against our existence in the Holy Land."
Fewer than 3,000 Christians live among Gaza's 1.7 million Muslim residents, and their numbers have rapidly shrunk in recent years, mainly because of the territory's turmoil. Some Christian families fled during the destruction from Israel's three-week military campaign against Hamas militants in the winter of 2008-2009. Others emigrated as Gaza's economy crumbled under Israel and Egypt's blockade, imposed after Hamas' takeover. Low birth rates also erode the community.
Those who remain say they feel increasingly unwelcome amid the more assertive religiosity everywhere around them.
With the latest conversions, only 10 Christians are known to have turned to Islam in the past eight years, according to community members. But some Christians say that while there is no officially sanctioned push to turn them to Islam, individual Muslims have become pushier in trying.
The informal social pressure can range from strangers on the street urging them to embrace Islam to colleagues at work or university persistently discussing their Muslim faith with Christian colleagues. Particularly vulnerable to the advances are youth wanting to join Gaza's wider society and gain greater opportunities for marriage and jobs — as well as unhappily married Christians, since conversion to Islam is one of the few ways to get a divorce from their Church marriages.
The community's tiny size makes it difficult to maintain independent institutions that preserve their identity. The community offers private schools for the younger children, but most Christian youths attend public high schools and later vie to get into Islamic University, considered the best in Gaza. In those environments, Christian youths mix with deeply devout Muslim students and teachers — and parents worry about their influence rubbing off onto their children.
In Palestinian society, Muslims and Christians tend to emphasize that relations between the two communities are harmonious, and that they are bound by a shared attempt to shake off Israeli occupation of lands they want for a future state.
"The (Christian) community is part of our people," said Hamas government minister Bassem Naim when asked about the fears of Gaza's Christians. "They have the full right to practice their faith."
At the same time, clear lines are drawn between Muslims and Christians. As in most parts of the Middle East, religion in the Palestinian territories is a badge of membership rather than a matter of personal choice. Those leaving the fold face expulsion from their families and communities.
Overall, some 160,000 Christians live in the Holy Land, including 110,000 in Israel and the rest in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, said Bernard Sabella, a Palestinian researcher.
The Gaza government said 2,980 Christians are registered in the territory, mostly Greek Orthodox. Christians said they believed the figure is closer to 1,500.
In recent years, several Christian institutions were attacked by suspected Muslim hardliners. In at least two cases, including the torching of the local YMCA, assailants were caught and sentenced to prison.
The most recent conversions touched a nerve in particular because the two — 24-year-old Ramez al-Amash and 32-year-old Hiba Abu Dawoud — came from prominent families. The two, who converted separately, disappeared from sight. Abu Dawoud took her three young daughters with her. Rumors swirled until a Muslim cleric announced last week they were under his protection.
Reaction was fierce. Community members led by Gaza's Greek Orthodox Archbishop Alexious blared that the two had been forced to convert.
"They kidnapped them ... they use even drugs," the archbishop told dozens of agitated Christian protesters gathered last week in the centuries-old Greek Orthodox Church of St. Perfidious in Gaza City. The demonstrators alternately chanted against Hamas, demanded the government bring back the converts, and shouted that their community was in peril.
But the converts later told Hamas-linked TV stations that they freely adopted Islam after months of deliberations. Al-Amash said he had long questioned his faith and learned about Islam through the Internet and Muslim friends. He said he had asked his family to understand.
"I told them I am good, and it wasn't against my will. Be my friends and my family," he said.
Abu Dawoud, wearing a blue Muslim headscarf and a long loose black robe, said, "Nobody forced me. Through my studies in the college and university, I came to love the religion ... I am very happy with this decision." Her girls, ages 12, 9 and 7, were shown on a pro-Hamas TV station cheerfully singing along to Islamic children's songs.
Abu Dawood said she had learned about Islam at an Islamic college in Gaza where she was studying the arts. At the church protest, her now estranged husband, Khaled Hilal, said that when she first started her studies she had complained that her schoolmates constantly hounded her about Islam and why she should convert.
Hassan al-Juju, head of the Islamic court that oversees conversions, said a panel of six judges repeatedly questioned the new converts, "Are you sure? Are you doing this freely?"
The families are trying to recover from the trauma surrounding the conversions.
Abu Dawoud has met with Hilal — they are now technically divorced — and will be discussing visitation rights, said Iyad al-Alami, deputy director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, which is mediating between the families and converts.
Al-Amash wants to live with his family again, but wants his mother to declare that she respects his decision. He still fears he'll be attacked by Christians angry at his decision, said al-Alami.
Among some in the community, the conversions struck a chord of panic.
"We lived together for years in Gaza: The sound of church bells ringing used to mix with the call of prayer from the mosque," said Elias, a government worker. But now, fearing for his children, Elias said he was looking for a way out.
"I am thinking of leaving with my family," he said.