JERUSALEM – The Hamas terrorist organization has strongly denied accusations it dug up the bodies of Christians because they were polluting the earth in the Gaza Strip.

“There is no truth to these claims. We will sue anyone who publishes them,” a spokesman for the office of senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh told WND.

The spokesman pointed to a scheduled meeting this month between Hamas officials and local Christian leaders as evidence of dialogue and coexistence with Gaza’s tiny Christian community.

Over the weekend, Rev. Majed El Shafie, president of One Free World International, a human-rights organization currently visiting Israel, accused Hamas of upsetting Christian burial sites.

“Hamas digs up the bodies of Christians from Christian burial sites in the Gaza Strip claiming that they pollute the earth,” Shafie charged.

His organization further charged that every three minutes a Christian is tortured in the Muslim world, and that this year more than 165,000 Christians will have been killed because of their faith, most of them in Muslim countries.

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

Last December, Christian leaders in Gaza told WND they held only small, quiet Christmas celebrations after local Christian leaders received warnings from Muslim groups against any public display of Christianity during the holiday season. Hamas claimed the Christian celebrations were muted to protest what it said was an Israeli siege of the coastal Gaza Strip.

Since Hamas’ rise to power, Christians in Gaza reportedly have been targeted. Jihadia Salafiya, an Islamist outreach group with a so-called military wing, is suspected of many of the Islamic militant attacks, such as a May 2007 shooting against a United Nations school in Gaza after it allowed boys and girls to participate in the same sporting event. One person was killed in the attack.

A Bible store in the Gaza Strip – the only Christian bookstore in the territory – was attacked by Islamic militants several times. The store’s owner, Rami Ayyad, was found shot to death in 2007, his body riddled with bullets.

WND quoted witnesses stating Ayyad was publicly tortured a few blocks from his store before he was shot to death. The witnesses said they saw three armed men, two of whom were wearing masks, beat Ayyad repeatedly with clubs and the butts of their guns while they accused him of attempting to spread Christianity in Gaza. The witnesses said that after sustaining the beating, Ayyad was shot by all three men.

Christians do not fare much better in the West Bank under the rule of the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority.

In 2006, a YMCA in the northern West Bank was attacked. Gunmen destroyed the locks on the YMCA’s entrance gates, crushed the gates, then entered the building and set it ablaze. Local fire brigades reportedly rushed to the scene and stopped the blaze before it spread to neighboring buildings. The attack occurred just after a PA-linked preacher accused the YMCA of missionary activity.

Following the YMCA attack, one Christian leader, an aide to Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah who asked his name be withheld for fear of Muslim retaliation, called the rampage part of a general trend of Christian persecution in Palestinian areas.

“It’s been happening all over the West Bank and Gaza,” said the aide.

There have been numerous reports of abuses and persecution in several West Bank towns taken over by the PA.

Anti-Christian riots have been reported in Ramallah, Nazareth and surrounding villages as well as in towns in Gaza, where Christians have been targeted in scores of attacks, some deadly.

In Bethlehem, local Christians have long complained of anti-Christian violence. The city’s Christian population, once 90 percent, declined drastically since the PA took control in December 1995. Christians now make up less than 25 percent of Bethlehem, according to Israeli surveys.

Christian leaders and residents in Bethlehem told WND they face an atmosphere of regular hostility. They said Palestinian armed groups stir tension by holding militant demonstrations and marches in the streets. They spoke of instances in which Christian shopkeepers’ stores were ransacked and Christian homes attacked. One of the most urgent problems is the unilateral confiscation of Christian property by local Islamic militants.

“It is a regular phenomenon in Bethlehem,” Samir Qumsiyeh, a Bethlehem Christian leader and owner of the Beit Sahour–based private Al-Mahd (Nativity) TV station, told WND. “They go to a poor Christian person with a forged power-of-attorney document, then they say we have papers proving you’re living on our land. If you confront them, many times the Christian is beaten. You can’t do anything about it. The Christian loses, and he runs away.”

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.