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JERUSALEM – Intimidation by members of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party forced a Catholic church in Gaza to hold a memorial service yesterday for the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat, according to sources in Gaza’s Christian leadership.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety, said Catholics now fears retaliation from Hamas, Fatah’s rival, after holding yesterday’s ceremony commemorating the third anniversary of Arafat’s death.

“The church was obliged to hold the event for Arafat after Christian leaders participated in a Hamas event 10 days ago,” said a Christian source close to the church. “Now we fear Christians may be casualties of the escalating violence. We may be caught in the crosshairs, and we’re afraid of retaliation.”

The Arafat memorial was held at Gaza City’s Holy Family Church. Manuel Musallam, the parish’s priest was quoted by participants calling Arafat’s death “a great loss for the Palestinian people.”

“Arafat was a great and very courageous leader,” stated Musallam, according to memorial participants speaking to WND. “We miss this great person who was the first to bring hopes of freedom and independence to the Palestinians. We call on the Palestinian leadership to follow Arafat’s road to end the suffering of Palestinian people.”

The church event was part of larger, three-day memorial services held throughout the Gaza Strip and West Bank, with events in Gaza setting off the worst factional clashes between Fatah and Hamas in months.

Hamas gunmen Monday reportedly opened fire at a massive Fatah rally in Gaza that had over 250,000 participants in the largest show of Fatah strength in Gaza since Hamas took over the territory in June. Seven Palestinians – all reportedly Fatah supporters – were killed in the clashes, according to news reports. Some 85 more were wounded in the violence, three of whom are said to be in serious condition.

The church memorial was the second time in recent days Christian leaders in the Gaza Strip said they were intimidated into showing support for the Palestinian leadership.

Earlier this month, WND reported Christian leaders in the Gaza Strip were intimidated into attending and expressing support for a speech in which the territory’s Hamas leader urged the worldwide spread of Islam, according to sources in Gaza’s Christian community.

Artinious Alexious, priest of Gaza’s Greek Orthodox Church, and Emanuel Salum, a Catholic leader in Gaza, were at a major speech 10 days ago by Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Hamas government in Gaza and deposed prime minister of the previously Hamas-run Palestinian Authority.

Also present were hundreds of gunmen, including members of a group, Jihadia Salafiya, suspected of carrying out anti-Christian attacks in Gaza such as the lobbing of grenades last September at Alexious’ church.

Hamas banned most international media from covering the event, only allowing entry to journalists accredited by the terror group.

A major theme of Haniyeh’s speech was the spread of Islamic values throughout the world, according to reporters in attendance.

The reporters present said at one point during his speech, Haniyeh spoke about the “excellent” situation for Christians living under Hamas rule in Gaza.

He pointed to the two Christian leaders in attendance, at which point to two raised their hands and nodded in agreement, witnesses told WND.

According to sources in Gaza’s Christian community speaking on condition of anonymity, Alexious and Salum were intimidated into attending the Hamas speech. The sources said in the weeks prior to the event, Haniyeh’s office repeatedly called the Christian leaders to request they free their schedules to assist the Hamas rally.

“The priests thought it was a diplomatic way to threaten them and put pressure on them,” said one source.

“After discussions within the Christian community leadership it was decided it would be dangerous not to assist in the meeting even though it would be very strange to see priests assisting in a meeting about the spread of Islam,” the source said.

Hamas in June seized complete control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah amid widespread fears it would impose hard-line Islamic rule in the territory and that life for Christians might deteriorate.

About 3,000 Christians live in the Gaza Strip, which has a population of over 1 million.

There have been a slew of recent alleged anti-Christian attacks in Gaza, including the murder last month of a Christian bookstore owner whose beaten, bullet-ridden body was found after his shop repeatedly had been targeted by Islamists. Rami Ayyad, who managed the only Christian bookstore in Gaza, also had been threatened a number of times by local Islamist groups.

To interview Aaron Klein, contact Tim Bueler Public Relations by e-mail, or call (530) 401-3285.


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