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Gaza Christians Nervous after Killing of Bible Bookstore Operator
By Jeremy Reynalds
GAZA/Islam (Assist News Service) — The killing of a prominent Palestinian Christian on Sunday sent a shudder of fear through the Gaza Strip’s small Christian community, which is feeling increasingly insecure since the Islamic Hamas seized control there last summer.
The Associated Press (AP) reported that the body of Rami Khader Ayyad, 32, director of Gaza’s only Christian bookstore, was found on a Gaza City street early Sunday. There was a visible gunshot wound to the head, and an official at Gaza ‘s Shifa Hospital said he was also stabbed a number of times. Ayyad had been missing since Saturday afternoon.

Ayyad’s store, the Teacher’s Bookshop, is associated with the Palestinian Bible Society. According to the AP, Ayyad regularly received anonymous death threats from people angry about his perceived missionary work, a rarity among Gaza ‘s Christians, and in April, the bookstore was firebombed.

“We feel Rami was killed for his Christian faith,” Simon Azazian, a spokesman at the Bible Society’s head office in Jerusalem , told the AP.

Ayyad had been increasingly worried about the threats on his store, Azazian said.

On Friday, Ayyad noticed that he was being followed by a car with no license plates. He was abducted after closing the store the following day and called his family to say he would be freed late in the evening, the AP reported Azazian said. Police were notified, but his body was found the next morning.

Ayyad left two young children and a pregnant wife. CTV News reported that Ayyad’s wife fell limp screaming his name during the funeral Sunday.

Christians said they feared the death would disrupt their quiet but uneasy relationship with the Muslim majority.

“He paid his life for his faith, for his dignity, and the dignity of the Bible and Jesus Christ,” Issa, a 24-year-old Christian who came to pay his respects at Ayyad’s home, told the AP. “I am terrified and cannot believe this has happened in Gaza,” Issa added, declining to give his last name because of the tense atmosphere.

Expressing a common sentiment among Christian mourners, the AP reported that he stopped short of blaming Hamas, saying only that the “enemy of God, love, justice and Jesus” was behind the crime.

“It’s too early to talk about the motive of this crime, which might be dangerous,” Hussam Tawil, a Palestinian lawmaker who represents Gaza ‘s Christians, told the AP.

Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of Gaza ‘s Hamas government, expressed “great sadness” over Ayyad’s death and said he ordered an investigation. “I stress the strong relations between Christians and Muslims in the Palestinian arena,” the AP reported he said. “We are part of the same nation … and we are not going to allow anyone to sabotage this historical relationship.”

The AP reported that about 1,000 people, including many Muslims, attended Ayyad’s funeral.

Before the burial, his body was brought to his family’s home, where dozens of people paid their respects. The body, its head covered in a white bandage, lay in a coffin, as his mother wept.

“You sacrificed your soul for the sake of Jesus’ blood,” the AP reported she kept saying. Ayyad’s brother, Ibrahim, tried to comfort the mother, promising to avenge the death.

Later, the coffin was taken to Gaza ‘s Greek Orthodox Church for a procession and burial. The car was decorated with three Palestinian flags.

The AP reported that in a statement, Ayyad’s family called for the arrest of the killers. “We emphasized the unity between the one Palestinian people, Muslims and Christians, who have struggled together for decades.”

Most of Gaza ‘s Christians are Greek Orthodox, with a smaller number of Catholics. Ayyad was one of a handful of Baptists. CTV News reported that Ayyad was carried to a dusty grave dug by two Muslims. He was buried in the Greek Orthodox cemetery because the Baptists do not have their own burial ground in Gaza .

About 3,200 Christians live in Gaza among 1.4 million Muslims. The AP reported that while Christians and Muslims have generally gotten along over the years, Christians have grown uneasy since Hamas routed forces of the secular Fatah movement and seized control of Gaza in June. During the takeover, vandals ransacked a Roman Catholic convent and an adjacent school, breaking crosses and smashing the face of a ceramic Jesus.

Gaza ‘s Hamas rulers have gone out of their way to reassure Christians that they are safe, the AP said. However, despite public pledges of unity, Christians privately express fear that violent Muslim radicals have grown emboldened by the Hamas takeover.

In recent months, the AP said, shadowy Islamic groups have carried out dozens of attacks on Internet cafes, music shops and other targets associated with the West.

Some of the attacks, though not the one against Ayyad’s bookstore, were claimed by a little-known extremist Islamic group calling itself the Swords of Justice. Hamas has strongly denied involvement in any of the violence.