Gaza believers continue in fear

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (BP)--Hundreds of people crowded around a small stage on the sidewalk in Bethlehem. Traffic slowed not only to dodge those dancing in the street but so passengers could listen to the musicians publicly proclaiming God's love for the nations.

A visiting Gaza woman nervously looked around, checking the crowd for troublemakers at the outdoor praise and worship concert by Bethlehem Bible College students.

"We couldn't do something like this in Gaza. People are always watching," she whispered, afraid someone might hear. "Ever since our dear brother was killed for his faith, Gaza Christians live in fear."

Rami Ayyad, a prominent Baptist, was kidnapped and found dead less than a mile from a Christian bookstore he managed for the Palestinian Bible Society. Officials say there has been no progress in the investigation of the October incident. The bookstore was bombed last April but no one was injured.

Life has been increasingly difficult for Christians in Gaza since Hamas seized control of the coastal strip last June. Attacks against Christians have been rare; however, the Baptist community has been a target for extremists because of its evangelical work.

Many Baptist leaders have fled Gaza Strip, taking refuge in the West Bank. Pastor Hanna Massad and his family are among eight families who relocated because they felt it was too dangerous to remain in their homeland.

"The Lord is teaching us many things during this time. To follow Christ is very real to us now," Massad said. "There's a price to pay to follow our Lord. We see people willing to give their life for Christ. Every day, Gaza Christians are confronted with the question, 'Are you willing to follow?'"

These refugees spend much time worrying about their Baptist family back home and praying for their safety. Christians living in the Gaza Strip number around 3,000. Most are Greek Orthodox, but there are a few hundred Catholics and a small community of Baptists living in this 140-square-mile territory where more than 1.5 million Muslims live.

Massad said believers in Gaza have been robbed or threatened in recent months. When a 6-year-old girl answered the intercom system at her house recently, a voice told her he plans to kill her father.

"The man threatened isn't a leader in the Baptist church, but he is a very committed Christian," a Baptist worker said. "Most of those left in Gaza are not high-profile Baptist leaders, but they are still identified as part of the Baptist church. The threat to them is still very high and very real."

Life in the Gaza Strip is marked by hardship and isolation, as the average Palestinian just tries to survive from one day to the next. There's often no electricity. This means very little water because water pumps are electric. Store shelves are depleted. Food prices have escalated dramatically, making even basic necessities too expensive for many. Luxury items, such as chocolate and Coca-Cola, are nonexistent.

Violence or the threat of violence is just a part of everyday life, as seen recently with rocket launchings by the Palestinians and reciprocal shootings by the Israeli army, just days after President George W. Bush visited the region.

Also taking an emotional toll: the impenetrable security fence circling the Gaza Strip, separating them from the outside world. Many say this is their own "little prison."

Most Baptists live in one section of town, in further isolation. The Baptist church that had more than 100 members six months ago might have only 10 attend Sunday services now.

"People are afraid to gather in groups," Massad said. "For the annual Christmas party, Sunday School teachers went from individual house to individual house to distribute gifts sent from those of us in Bethlehem. There was a fear that if they gathered as a church group something might happen."

In December, some Gaza Christians had a small reprieve from the stresses of living in the Gaza Strip. Israel granted temporary permission to hundreds to travel to the West Bank for the holidays. Many chose not to return.

The Gaza woman listening to the praise and worship concert in Bethlehem said she planned to return home after a two-week stay in the West Bank.

"Yes, life is hard there and we live in fear. But I will go back," she said, closing her eyes and swaying to the rich Arabic rhythms. "It is my home. It is my mission field."

Gaza Baptists and Christian workers ask prayer for:

-- The safety of Gaza believers.

-- The calming of fear. With many afraid to go to church, pray that these believers will know when it is time to return. Pray that they will be strong in their faith and proclaiming the message.

-- Hope. Christian workers say that many in Gaza have no hope. Pray that believers in Gaza will be able to share the hope that is within them in Christ.

Sue Sprenkle is an overseas correspondent for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

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