Mourning, condemnation follow murder of prominent Christian in Gaza

Hundreds of Muslims and Christians attended a memorial service Sunday for a prominent Palestinian Christian who was found stabbed and shot on a Gaza City street earlier that day.

|PIC1|At Gaza's Greek Orthodox church, Palestinian mourners gathered around the body of Rami Khader Ayyad, the 32-year-old director of Gaza's only Christian bookstore who hospital officials say was shot in the head and stabbed numerous times.

Ayyad's family and neighbours said Ayyad had regularly received anonymous death threats from people angry about his missionary work and was abducted late Saturday afternoon by unknown assailants near his home.

His murder came six months after the religious store he managed, the Teacher's Bookshop, was bombed, apparently by Muslim extremists.

"We hope he was not killed because he was Christian," said Nicholas Issa, a Christian, according to The Scotsman. "That is what worries Christians in Gaza now. Today is a black day for Gaza."

Kamal Juda, a Muslim, added that the killing showed Hamas has not yet gained full control over the security situation after its takeover of Gaza in June.

The latest incident came as Christian leaders in Gaza have called on Hamas officials to make greater efforts to protect Christians in light of the instability and lawlessness in Gaza following the Islamic group's takeover.

Previously, Christians were respected citizens and considered part of Gaza's elite as they ran schools, hospitals and businesses. The late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, assigned Christians to top positions in the government and the Fatah movement.

Even after Hamas wrested control of Gaza strip in mid-June, the Hamas-led coalition government consisted of a prominent Gaza Christian, Hussam Tawil. Moreover, Hamas forces had protected Gaza's Greek Orthodox Church from angry Muslims after Pope Benedict XVI's comment on Islam.

Yet Muslim-Christian relations are reportedly unraveling as attacks against Christians continue despite Hamas' promises to protect the community.

Last month, an 80-year-old Christian woman in Gaza City was attacked by a masked man who, during the course of the robbery, beat her hands with a club and also hit her head with a tool causing her to bleed.

"As soon as I opened the door, he pushed me inside and shouted: 'Where is the money, you infidel?' I shouted back: I'm not an infidel - I'm a proud Palestinian Arab," Claire Farah Tarazi recalled to the Jerusalem Post.

The assailant then locked her in her bedroom as he searched for money, but Tarazi was able to escape through another bedroom door and went to a neighbor for help.

Tarazi's relatives pointed out that she was attacked because of her faith.

"The fact that the attacker called her an infidel speaks for itself," a relative, who was not identified, told the Post. "He clearly knew that this was a Christian woman living alone. He would not have dared to do the same thing to a Muslim woman."

About 3,000 Christians live in Gaza among 1.5 million Muslims and relations between two communities have generally been good.

"Muslim and Christian relations are very strong and will not be affected by such crimes committed by criminal elements," expressed Hamas in a statement Sunday, calling Ayyad's death a "murderous crime."

According to reports, a large delegation of Hamas leaders visited Ayyad's family and delivered condolences on behalf of the prime minister, Ismail Haniya. In a statement, Haniya condemned the killing and said Hamas "would not allow anyone to sabotage" Muslim-Christian relations.

"We are one people waging a single struggle for independence and freedom," expressed Haniyeh, according to Reuters.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a faction that enjoys broad support among Gaza's Christians, also issued a statement, calling the killing "a desperate attempt to sabotage the good social relations in Palestinian society and the friendly relations between Christian and Muslims."

And the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, which said the crime "will not pass unpunished," said it had launched an investigation and promised to bring Ayyad's killers to justice.

So far, there has been no claim of responsibility, but suspicion has been focused on Islamist extremists who have also previously targeted internet cafés and video stores.

In April, Ayyad's bookstore was firebombed during a wave of attacks by a shadowy Muslim "vice squad" on Internet cafes, music shops and other targets associated with Western influence.

The bookshop, which opened in 1999, sells Bibles and Christian literature despite a spate of threats and attacks against it. It is run by a Baptist group, the Holy Bible Society, dedicated to projecting a Christian presence in the Muslim region.

"We can't express the shock," said Suhad Massad, director of the society, according to The Scotsman. "We don't know who is behind this attack."

Palestinian lawmaker Hussam Tawil, who represents Gaza's Christians, said the Christian community and all of Gaza society are "feeling deeply shocked because of this awful, ugly crime."

He also said it's "too early" to talk about the motive of the crime, adding that doing so "might be dangerous."

Simon Azazian, a spokesman at the Bible Society's head office in Jerusalem, however, told AP that the organization felt Ayyad was killed for his Christian faith.

Issa, a 24-year-old Christian who went to pay his respects at Ayyad's home, echoed that sentiment, saying, "He paid his life for his faith, for his dignity, and the dignity of the Bible and Jesus Christ."

"I am terrified and cannot believe this has happened in Gaza," added Issa, declining to give his last name because of the tense atmosphere.

Ayyad reportedly left two young children and a pregnant wife.

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