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Tested by fire

"Tested by fire" Continued...

Issue: "Flame-outs," May 8, 2010

The Baptist church, which first opened in the 1950s, had increasingly provided a similar safety net by running a library, youth programs, and medical clinics, and by helping with a school that began in 2006 and currently serves 250 mostly Muslim students. A few workers in Gaza, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, say they believe that Islamic militants increasingly saw the church programs as competing with their own-and Ayyad as the face for that work.

So Massad, his wife, and two daughters-with the help of the Israeli and Palestinian Bible Society-left. They lived in the West Bank near Bethlehem for 10 months, then moved to Jordan, where his wife has family. Ayyad's widow and her three young children (she was pregnant when her husband was murdered) also evacuated to the West Bank, along with other families connected to the church work.

Massad is the only one allowed to return, and he comes back for several weeks at a time to serve in the church, to preach, and to help supervise the school. At one point he was cut off from his family for 10 months as Israeli authorities refused him permission to leave Gaza.

When Massad does go back, it is to the stucco house where he was born. In 1948 Israeli advances in the Arab-Israeli War forced his parents and grandparents out of Jaffa, and like hundreds of thousands of others, they ended up in Gaza. We talked in the home's walled garden, sitting on plastic chairs where his Bible lay open beneath the shade of mango trees his father planted in the 1980s. The garden is small but contains 50-year-old olive trees planted by his grandfather, several lemon trees, and beds of parsley and greens. Massad hires a caretaker in his absences, as he is the only one left to manage the property: One sister has just died of a long-term illness and another with muscular dystrophy requires home care.

"I really did not want to leave because a shepherd does not leave his sheep," said Massad. Many who remained in Gaza left the church out of fear following Ayyad's death but are slowly returning-up to 200 people currently attend the regular Sunday afternoon service. In all, church leaders estimate, Gaza has about 1,000 Christians-mostly Greek Orthodox and Catholic, with a growing number of evangelicals-out of its total population of 1.4 million.

"We live between two fires," said Massad. "Muslim persecution and Israeli occupation."

He began as pastor in 1987 but left in 1991 to study at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, just as Hamas influence began to grow. By the time he returned in 1999, Hamas' militant influence was being felt among church members. Evangelism, he said, is a red-line issue, and most women in the church wear hijab, or a full-length head covering, when they go out in public so they can't be distinguished from Muslim women.

Since 2007, he said, "There is risk, and we have to be careful." But being careful also means forging relationships with receptive Hamas leaders: "We let them know that it is very important for the Christian community to feel safe here," said Massad. "When there is a risky situation I talk to them. The danger is more likely a small group of militants."

In addition to its war with Israel, Hamas is struggling to hold control inside Gaza. Rival groups, including Islamic Jihad and Salafia, have claimed responsibility for most recent attacks on Jewish settlements and for kidnappings-while Hamas publicly states it intends to maintain a ceasefire with Israel. But increasingly, say residents, control of Hamas-and therefore Gaza-is coming from outside the territory. In March Hamas' military chief in Gaza warned of increased bombings by al-Qaeda and Salafists against Hamas' own leaders and said, "Security anarchy is extensive and [Hamas military] men are being killed." Political decisions are made by Hamas leaders in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. "If things change there, they will change here," noted Massad. "But for the last 10 years all we've seen is more militancy."

And increasing deprivation as a result. Last week Israel allowed wood and aluminum into Gaza for the first time since 2007; it still blocks urgently needed concrete and cement.

What Israel does allow into Gaza is easier to list than what it does not: human food, animal food, groceries (like soap), and medicine. It blocks large items like cars and appliances, all manner of equipment and spare parts, and small items down to light bulbs, candles, matches, books, musical instruments-even crayons.

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