Here’s one measure of just how heated the subject of Israel and Palestine can be. When the Christianity Today Web site reported in January that the Palestinian Bible Society, located in Gaza City, may have been hit by an Israeli missile during the brief but intense winter war, some readers were anything but sensitive.
“And my response is … so what?” wrote one. “Lots of buildings have been hit. Is this an attempt to move Christian sympathy for Hamas?”
“If I choose to live among the enemies of freedom,” added another, “I shouldn’t be surprised that I might be destroyed when the friends of freedom respond to threats.”
One reader took offense at this remark, calling it “sickening” because it ignored the fact that Palestinian Christians were living in their own homes. No one said “amen.” When another commenter criticized Israel, however, others piled on.
“Your what happens when dumb liberals think they understand Christanity,” one grammar-challenged reader replied.
No matter what someone thinks about the Israel-Palestine morass, this wasn’t a high-water mark for Christian solidarity.
Hanna Massad was not part of that discussion – it’s doubtful he’d want to be – but he knows Gaza better than any of those readers. Gaza is his home.
Massad is the pastor of Gaza Baptist Church, the region’s only evangelical congregation. His wife managed the Palestinian Bible Society – that is, until they, their two young daughters and several extended family members left Gaza for the West Bank in 2007.
They departed literally to save their lives, thinking they would be gone for a matter of weeks instead of almost two years.
The Bible Society building was firebombed at least twice, a repeated target of Palestinian extremists. The worst moment came in October 2007, when a close friend and colleague, 29-year-old Rami Ayyad, who managed the Bible Society bookstore, was kidnapped in broad daylight and later shot to death. Gazan authorities condemned the murder and promised an investigation, but without results.
Massad and his family came to the U.S. last August for a one-year sabbatical, so he could study at the Overseas Ministries Study Center in Connecticut. He visited East Tennessee last week, speaking at Milligan College and Emmanuel School of Religion.
Massad, who received a Ph.D. in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary in California, chooses his words carefully as he describes life for Palestinian Christians. His voice is sad, not angry.
“We are caught between two fires,” Massad said last week during a lull in his speaking schedule. “On one hand there’s the fire of the Israel occupation. Then there’s the fire of militant Muslims, who are not happy with us.” Massad, 49, is a master of understatement.
Since the Hamas party gained control of Gaza in the 2006 elections, the already stressed Christian community has become a more frequent target of Muslim extremists. Hamas officials condemn attacks but take no effective action. The entire Christian population of Gaza has dwindled to about 2,000 believers, living among a population of 1.5 million.
For its part, Israel doesn’t seem interested in a real solution, Massad said. The infamous 432-mile security wall, severe travel restrictions (which separated Massad and his wife for almost a year), the continuing construction of settlements – all stir up Palestinian resentments. Last winter’s conflict cost 13 Israeli lives, compared to 1,300 Palestinians, most of them civilians.
Against that backdrop, Massad stands in an awkward and dangerous place. As a Palestinian, he is suspect to the Israelis. As a pastor, he makes himself a target for Palestinian extremists who hate Christians and think he may be aligned with the U.S. because the word “Baptist” is on the church building and he won’t call Israel his enemy.
“Humanly speaking, it’s easy to be depressed,” he said. “There are militants on both sides. But you cannot live without hope. With good intentions, all things are possible.”
When Massad and his family return to Gaza this summer, he anticipates “a lot of rebuilding of souls” in the congregation and community. They plan to restart the library and school, and to open a health clinic. The role of the church, he said, is to help create a culture of peace.
“We’ll do work to reflect God’s love,” he explained. “We can continue to have love for Israel and for the Palestinians. Love for one should not make you hate the other.”
Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 9 May 2009.