JERUSALEM, Israel -- Christians in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip are taking a public stand against forced conversion to Islam.
In an unusual public demonstration, men and women gathered in front of the Church of Saint Porphyrius Monday to protest the abduction and forced conversion of members of their congregation.
YNet reported that the newly converted Muslims, al-Amash, a 25-year-old man, and Hiba Abu Dawoud, 31, a mother with three children, are staying with a Muslim official for "protection" from their Christian families, according to Gaza police.
Forced conversion to Islam is not a new phenomenon in Gaza, but public protests by Christians are, Labib Nabanat, coordinator of the Israeli and Palestinian Bible Societies, told CBN News.
"This is not the first time this has happened. In the past, there were cases involving women, whole families, and younger men," Nabanat said. "But there has never before been such a public protest by Christians, which means they've reach the point of terrible desperation."
Generally, the pattern is the same.
"There would be a sudden disappearance of the individual(s) for an extended period of time, with no news or no information about them," Nabanat said. "Then comes a sudden announcement that they've converted to Islam. Afterward, they may reappear with armed people around them as protection."
Nabanat said there are two levels in Gaza: the political/legal/security level, which is not so bad, and the religious level, which is tough.
"There's no doubt that the general atmosphere on the street under the rule of an Islamist government has Christians feeling more and more under pressure. The rule of law is not against them, but the atmosphere -- that's a given -- is," he said.
Persecution of Arab Christians is certainly not new.
In October 2007, Islamists kidnapped and murdered 26-year-old Rami Ayyad, who worked at the Teacher's Bookshop, the only Christian bookstore in Gaza, established by the Palestinian Bible Society in 1999. His body, with multiple stab wounds and bullet holes, was found not far from the bookstore.
Five years later, Nabanat says there are good things taking place in the Arab Christian community in Gaza. He would like to encourage prayer for the ministry taking place in Gaza today.
"I'm so much more interested in people praying for Gaza than in venting negative emotions or feelings of anti-Islam," he said.