GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Gaza's tiny Christian community is keeping a low profile this Christmas, traumatized by the killing of a prominent activist in the wake of Hamas' takeover of the coastal territory.
Few Christmas trees are on display, churches are holding austere services and hundreds of Christians hope to travel to the moderate-controlled West Bank to celebrate the holiday in Bethlehem. Many say they don't plan to return.
"We have a very sad Christmas," said Essam Farah, acting pastor of Gaza's Baptist Church, which has canceled its annual children's party because of the grim atmosphere.
About 3,000 Christians live in Gaza, an overwhelmingly conservative-Muslim territory of 1.5 million people. It has been virtually cut off from the world and its residents driven deeper into poverty since the June takeover by Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States.
Christians and Muslims generally got along in Gaza, but that relationship has been shaky since Hamas seized control, and tensions have been exacerbated with the recent death of Rami Ayyad.
Ayyad, 32, a member of the Baptist Church, managed Gaza's only Christian bookstore. In early October, he was found shot in the head, his body thrown on a Gaza street 10 hours after he was kidnapped from the store.
He regularly received death threats from people angry about his perceived missionary work.
At the Baptist Church yesterday, just 10 people attended the regular weekly prayer service, down from an average of 70. There was no Christmas tree in sight.
Farah said the church's full-time pastor, along with his family and 12 employees of Ayyad's store, have relocated to the West Bank, where President Mahmoud Abbas heads a moderate government.
Community leaders say an unprecedented number of Christian families already are migrating from Gaza, rattled by the religious tensions and economic sanctions Israel imposed after the Hamas takeover.
Although no official statistics were available, the signs of the flight are evident. Rev. Manuel Musallem, head of Gaza's Roman Catholic church, said he knows of seven families who sold their properties and left the area, and of 15 more who are preparing to do the same.
Musallem blamed Israeli sanctions and excessive violence in Gaza for the flight.
"In previous years we didn't see this rate of migration," he said. "Now . . . whole families are leaving, selling their cars, homes and all their properties." *