Christianity’s Death Rattle in Gaza?

Fulfilling Caliph Umar’s “Vision”?

A report today (7/17/12) in Haaretz highlights the ongoing plight of Gaza’s tiny, fragile Christian minority. Their miniscule numbers have shrunk from a mere 3,500 to about 1,500 since Hamas seized control in 2006,  dispersed among 1.7 million Gazan Palestinians, overwhelmingly traditionalist, Hamas-supporting Muslims.

Briefly ignoring their dangerous vulnerability, as they verge on extinction, Gaza’s beleaguered Christian minority has brought their latest predicament—forced conversions, the recrudescence of a millennial Islamic scourge upon the region’s pre-Islamic, indigenous Christians—to public attention.

Dozens of Gaza Christians staged a rare public protest Monday, claiming two congregants were forcibly converted to Islam and were being held against their will. The small but noisy demonstration showed the increasingly desperate situation facing the tiny minority. Protesters banged on a church bell and chanted, “With our spirit, with our blood we will sacrifice ourselves for you, Jesus.”

Indeed the current plight of Gaza’s Christians reflects a continuum of destruction, persecution, and attrition of Middle Eastern Christianity—the legacy of Islam’s jihad—that dates back to the reign of the second “Rightly Guided” Caliph Umar (r. 634-644 A.D.).  Not only did Umar wage devastating, sanguinary campaigns of jihad conquest, he also imposed limitations upon the surviving, vanquished Christians aimed at their ultimate destruction by attrition. The Arab historian al-Baladhuri indicates that Umar deported Christians who refused to apostasize and embrace Islam, and that he obeyed the order of Islam’s prophet Muhammad who advised: “there shall not remain two religions in the land of Arabia.”During Umar’s caliphate neither cities nor monasteries were spared if they resisted Islamic goals. Thus when the Greek garrison of Gaza refused to submit and convert to Islam, all were put to death.

Alfred von Kremer, the seminal 19th century German scholar of Islam, described the “central idea” of Umar’s regime, as being the furtherance of “…the religious-military development of Islam at the expense of the conquered nations.” The predictable and historically verifiable consequence of this guiding principle was a legacy of harsh inequality, intolerance, and injustice towards non-Muslims observed by von Kremer in 1868, and still evident in Islamic societies to this day, as the plaintive appeal of Gaza’s contemporary Christians illustrates so poignantly:

It was the basis of its severe directives regarding Christians and those of other faiths, that they be reduced to the status of pariahs, forbidden from having anything in common with the ruling nation; it was even the basis for his decision to purify the Arabian Peninsula of the unbelievers, when he presented all the inhabitants of the peninsula who had not yet accepted Islam with the choice: to emigrate or deny the religion of their ancestors. The industrious and wealthy Christians of Najran, who maintained their Christian faith, emigrated as a result of this decision from the peninsula, to the land of the Euphrates, and ‘Umar also deported the Jews of Khaybar. In this way ‘Umar based that fanatical and intolerant approach that was an essential characteristic of Islam, now extant for over a thousand years, until this day [i.e., written in 1868]. It was this spirit, a severe and steely one, that incorporated scorn and contempt for the non-Muslims, that was characteristic of ‘Umar, and instilled by ‘Umar into Islam; this spirit continued for many centuries, to be Islam’s driving force and vital principle.

An updated and more bluntly germane assessment—confirmed by the agonizing death rattle of Christianity in contemporary Gaza—was made by  the esteemed Lebanese Maronite theologian, the late Father Michel Hayek (d. 2005), in 1968:

Why not admit it clearly, so as to break a taboo and a political interdict, which is felt in the flesh and the Christian conscience—that Islam has been the most appalling torment that ever struck the Church. Christian sensibility has remained traumatized until now.

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