By Elizabeth Kendal
In Gaza, local Christians are claiming that two members of their community, Ramez al-Amash (24) and Hiba Abu Dawoud (32), were kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam.
According to Gaza’s Greek Orthodox Archbishop Alexious, when Ramez al-Amash disappeared his parents filed a police complaint, but the police ignored it after learning that the mastermind behind the alleged kidnapping was a senior cleric identified with Hamas. Christians are blaming Salem Salama, chairman of the Palestine Scholars Association.
Hamas officials, however, tell a different story; they claim Ramez al-Amash and Hiba Abu Dawoud converted of their own free will.
Ramez and Hiba’s families are absolutely adamant that they did not convert freely. “If my son is not kidnapped, why don’t they just let him go home with me?” asked Huda Amash, mother of Ramez. “My son was brought up as a Christian. His love of Jesus is strong enough to keep him Christian. He cannot change his beliefs all of a sudden. ”
Shortly after Hiba Abu Daoud disappeared, she sent a message to her husband’s mobile phone informing him that she and their daughters aged 12, 9 and 7yrs had converted to Islam.
According to her now-estranged husband, Khaled Hilal, Hiba had complained during her university studies that her fellow students were constantly pressuring and hounding her about Islam and about why she should convert.
Hiba’s mother also said her daughter had been stalked by fellow employees at the Islamic University, who said she needed to become a Muslim. “My daughter lived in a struggle with them. She did not do this of her own choice.”
So convinced are they that a terrible offence has been committed, dozens of local Christians risked life and liberty to protest what they see as a major threat to their vulnerable community. On Monday 16 July the believers rang the bells at St Perfidious, Gaza’s Greek Orthodox church, and cried out: “With our spirit, with our blood, we will sacrifice ourselves for you, Jesus.”
Hamas officials subsequently had the “converts” appear on the Hamas-linked TV station where they “confessed” to having converted to Islam freely after long deliberations. Hamas officials said that the individuals had been staying with a Muslim religious official under police protection at their own request as they feared retribution from their families. While Ramez al-Amash professed great love for his family and a desire to be home with them again, he added that his family must accept this conversion. He returned home the next day.
Hiba Abu Daoud has also appeared in a video clip made by a pro-Hamas news website. Wearing a blue Muslim headscarf and a long loose black robe, Hiba says, “Nobody forced me. Through my studies in the college and university, I came to love the religion . . . I am very happy with this decision . . . We are living wit h a (Muslim) family, they bring us all we need, they teach us how to pray and everything . . . I love you all, I hope no one feels upset with me, it was my decision which I made months ago.” Her three daughters were also shown on a pro-Hamas TV station cheerfully singing along to Islamic children’s songs.
Hiba’s aunt, Fatin Ayyad, claims her niece was speaking under duress. “We are increasingly worried about our sons and daughters. If those people joined Islam of their own will it would not have been a problem. But they were under pressure,” she said.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights — which is mediating between the families — said in a statement Tuesday 24 July that the five people had met with their family members and affirmed that they had not been forced to convert.
Now technically divorced, Hiba Abu Daoud has met with her former husband, Hilal. They are in the process of working out visitation rights.
Hamas Health Minister Bassem Naim remarked, “Such accusations [of forced conversi ons] lack credibility and push an atmosphere of peaceful coexistence towards tension, which does not serve the Palestinian people.”
So who do we believe?
Some in the media have clearly accepted Hamas’ version of events, presumably taking the “confessions” of the “converts” as confirmation.
But the reality is, forced conversion is not uncommon in Islam. It happens regularly in Pakistan and while it has been commonplace in Egypt for a long time, it has escalated since the “Arab Spring”. According to activist Mark Ebeid, the escalation can be put down to the “emergence of Muslim Salafists who believe strongly that converting a Christian Infidel is in some ways like earning a ticket to paradise — not to mention the earthly remuneration they get from the Saudis.”
It may well be significant that the “converts” hail from two “prominent” Christian families. It is also highly likely that, if indeed as informed observers may expect, the conversions have been coerced, then those who did the coercing doubtless also issued threats — deadly threats that will ensure the “converts” never contradict the official Hamas line and never openly return to Christianity (at least not while they and their families are in the Middle East and cannot be protected).
A shroud of despair descends on Christian community
“If things remain like this, there will be no Christians left in Gaza,” said Huda Amash, the mother of Ramez al-Amash. “Today, it’s Ramez. Who will be next?”
Archbishop Alexious is spearheading the protests against persecution of Christians and forced conversions. As would be expected, he has come under sharp criticism from many Palestinians and the Hamas government for daring to speak out about the plight of his community. The controversy has sent religious tensions soaring and many in the vulnerable Christian community fear reprisals from Islamic fundamentalists.
“We lived together for years in Gaza: The sound of church bells ringing used to mix with the call of prayer from the mosque,” said Elias, a government worker. But now, fearing for his children, Elias said he was looking for a way out. “I am thinking of leaving with my family,” he said.
Though the Christians have appealed to the Vatican and Christian groups and churches in the US, Canada and Europe for help, they get the distinct impression that the world does not seem to care about their plight. “We only hear voices telling us to stay where we are and to stop making too much noise,” said a Christian man living in Gaza City. “If they continue to turn a blind eye to our tragedy, in a few months there will be no Christians left in Palestine. Today it ‘s happening in the Gaza Strip, tomorrow it will take place in Bethlehem.”
Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. This article is an edited version of a posting written for her blog: Religious Liberty Monitoring .