Leaked Hamas Christmas memo causes Christian dismay in Gaza

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - A leaked Hamas memo showing Gaza's ruling Islamist group wanted to curb Christmas celebrations among Gaza's Muslim majority has upset the enclave's tiny Christian community in the run-up to the holiday.

The ministry of religious affairs document, dated Dec. 15, called for "activities by the directorate of preaching and spiritual guidance to limit interaction with Christmas".

The leak went public last weekend, upsetting Palestinian Christians.

"We set an example for the world in not having any sectarian problems, therefore, we were very upset," said Samer Tarazi, a Christian journalist in Gaza. He said Christians just wanted life to continue "as normal".

Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox Archbishop, Atallah Hanna, called the memo "inflammatory", but said it "will not harm our unity and good relations".

Hamas said the reaction was exaggerated and that it only wanted to ensure Muslims marked Christian holidays in accordance with Islamic law.

"There was never any intention to offend Christians or limit their ability to celebrate and perform their religious rituals," said Bassem Naim, a Hamas official.

The ministry, which is tasked with running Gaza’s mosques and looking after Muslim and Christian affairs in the coastal strip, quickly released a statement saying Christians "have the right to hold their religious celebrations and they can't be offended or be restricted".

The statement added: "Just as Muslims are commanded to avoid violations of (Islamic law) on Muslim holidays, it is all the more reason for them to avoid (such violations) during the holidays of others."

It is rare for religious tensions in Gaza to spill over into the public domain.

While around 1% of the population of the Palestinian Territories as a whole are Christian, the percentage is small in Gaza, where there are around 1,000 mostly Greek Orthodox Christians among nearly 2 million Muslims.

The Christian community was already upset that celebrations will be limited because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Gaza Christians cannot make their usual Christmas trips to Bethlehem this year due to increased COVID-19 travel restrictions imposed by Israel - which has for years imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip citing security concerns about Hamas - and Palestinian curbs on movement to prevent the spread of infection.

(Editing by Rami Ayyub, Stephen Farrell and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)