By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Two conversions that a Christian family says were forced have strained relations between a tiny Palestinian Christian community in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and the Muslim majority.
Hundreds of Christians have staged protests in Gaza's main church in the past week, demanding the return of members of their community of 2,500, whom they said were kidnapped by Islamist proselytizers and forced to convert to Islam.
Christians are blaming the Hamas-affiliated Palestine Scholars Association and its chairman Salem Salama, a senior member of the Islamist Hamas movement.
Hamas has run Gaza since its forces seized control of the coastal enclave in 2007, ousting security services loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas of the secular Fatah movement.
Hamas officials reject the church's accusations, saying two Christians, a man and a woman, converted freely to Islam. The woman, who had left her husband, brought along her three daughters aged 12, 9, and 6 who are now being taught the Koran.
The 24-year-old man told reporters he had become Muslim of his own free will and wanted to go back to his family, should they accept him as a Muslim. A day later, he returned home.
It was not possible to speak to the newly converted woman, Hiba Daoud, but in a video clip made by a pro-Hamas news website she tells her family it was her decision to become a Muslim.
"We are living with a (Muslim) family, they bring us all we need, they teach us how to pray and everything," said Hiba, wearing a full Muslim dress and a scarf covering her hair.
"I love you all, I hope no one feels upset with me, it was my decision which I made months ago."
But her aunt, Fatin Ayyad, says Hiba spoke under duress.
"We are increasingly worried about our sons and daughters. If those people joined Islam of their own will it would not have been a problem. But they were under pressure," she said.
"SPLIT IN RELATIONS"
Only nine Gaza Christians are known to have converted to Islam in the past half-dozen years, an insignificant number. Yet the church and some congregants see the latest conversions as the thin end of the wedge and say they are being targeted.
"There is a big split in relations now," said Ayyad. "Some groups want to spread division between Muslims and Christians."
At the Islamic Scholars office, Salama rejected accusations of forced conversions. He said 11 Christians, including non-Palestinians, had come to his office in the past five months to become Muslim.
"No one is forced to change his religion. This is the instruction of our holy book Koran," said Salama.
Greek Orthodox Archbishop Alexios, who has served the Christian community in Gaza for 12 years, demanded that the Hamas administration help return the woman and her daughters to her home in order to calm tensions.
"We do not want any problem. We want peace and harmony to prevail among us," Alexios told Reuters at the church, located next door to a mosque in downtown Gaza City.
"We are not strangers. Christians did not come from the outside. Christians are part of the Palestinian body and not a strange body," he said at a protest held after the Sunday prayer sermon attended by around 70 worshippers.
Christian-Muslim relations in Gaza are historically far less turbulent than in Egypt, where Copts complain of persecution, or Iraq, where Christians have been targeted for attack.
A Gaza church was bombed in 2009 by al Qaeda-influenced Islamists but since then, Alexios says, churches have been safe. He praised the cooperation of Hamas, but he accused Salama's association of trying to cause friction between the religions.
Hamas security forces have cracked down on radical Islamist cells accused of attacking Christian symbols including a church and a cemetery.
Hamas says it practices a moderate Islam. Palestinian law makes all residents equal before the law regardless of race, gender, color or religion and gives them freedom to practice their religious rituals, without disturbing public order.
In the past five years, two Gaza Christians have been murdered, one by a Muslim friend over a debt, the other in murkier circumstances still not resolved. It was rumored he had been killed by Islamist radicals for trying to convert Muslims.
The Christians of Gaza work in almost all professions. Many are doctors and teachers, and some own jewelry stores. Their number dropped to 2,500 from 3,000 before 2007, mostly owing to economic reasons in the enclave, blockaded by Israel.
There are many more Christians among Palestinians of the West Bank, about 52,000 out of a population of 2.5 million, where they have their own Christian schools.
Some of the Palestinian Christians living among Gaza's 1.7 million Muslims are educated in Hamas government schools, some in secular schools run by the United Nations agency UNRWA and some in their own schools. There is no overt discrimination.
Some Gaza Christian families say their children are the target of "brainwashing" attempts by Muslim activists. Daoud's mother said her daughter Hiba was stalked by fellow employees at the Islamic University, who said she needed to become a Muslim.
"My daughter lived in a struggle with them. She did not do this of her own choice," she said.
Alexios said Gaza Muslims and Christians had lived in harmony for 1,600 years. Hamas is not to blame for those now trying to spoil relations, he said, because it wants political contacts with countries of the Christian world.
"It would not benefit them to harm the Christian community here. That's why it has never crossed my mind," Alexios said.
Some Christians now say they would rather leave Gaza than risk losing their children to Islam. But Alexios said they should not act out of fear.
(Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Alistair Lyon)