GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Father Manuel Musallam, head of the World Popular Organization for Jerusalem Justice and Peace, urged Hamas on April 13 to establish a Christian media center to defend the movement from claims that it mistreats Christians.
A few days earlier, the Palestinian Central Elections Commission published the final list of candidates for the legislative elections to be held in May. Hamas’ electoral list only included one Christian among its 132 candidates after several Christians withdrew.
Musallam revealed in a March 30 Interview with Hamas-affiliated Al-Resalah newspaper that several Christian candidates faced intimidation and pressure not to run from media outlets he did not name. He said that “upsetting and deceitful propaganda” is being used to tarnish Hamas’ image and its ties with Christians.
“Hamas has been unjustly targeted by a smear campaign,” Musallam added, saying that Hamas' media arms have failed to respond adequately.
Musallam told Al-Monitor that media outlets in Europe are portraying Hamas inaccurately, particularly in its relationship with Christian residents.
Musallam, who previously headed the Catholic Church in the Gaza Strip, said that Christians are not persecuted under Hamas, as some Western media outlets claim.
A 2019 report by the US State Department on International Religious Freedom noted that while “Christian groups reported Hamas generally tolerated the small Christian presence in Gaza and did not force Christians to abide by Islamic law,” celebrations of Christmas as a public holiday stopped in Gaza after Hamas came to power. The report also noted that, according to media accounts, Hamas did not investigate or prosecute cases of religious discrimination against Christians in Gaza.
Musallam revealed that his nephew who lives in Ramallah had intended to run on the Hamas list, but his family pressured him to reconsider. He blamed a smear campaign against Hamas that led his family to worry that their business interests would be affected and that the Israelis would persecute them.
Basem Naim, a member of Hamas' international relations office, told Al-Monitor that his movement welcomed Musallam’s call to establish a media center and considers it an innovative idea that shows that the Christian Palestinian community is eager to defend Gaza's image to the world.
Naim explained that Hamas will examine the idea and consider appointing a Christian media adviser. He noted that the Western press demonizes Hamas because some countries in the West have negative views regarding Arab Islamists in general.
Naim also clarified why some Christian figures withdrew their candidacy on Hamas’ electoral list, saying, “We offered a number of Christian figures in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip the chance to run on the movement’s list, but they withdrew for several reasons, such as family pressure or health issues, or even fear of Israeli restrictions on their travel and work.”
Hamas is accused of being one of the reasons for their declining numbers in the Gaza Strip, which it has controlled since 2007. The accusations include Hamas imposing restrictions on Christians in an effort to force them to emigrate. However, Hamas supporters say the movement's security services provide protection to Christian churches, schools and other facilities, and Hamas leaders send them greetings on their holidays every year.
According to the Diyar Consortium, a research group based in Bethlehem, Gaza's Christian population has indeed decreased. Only 850 Christians live in the Gaza Strip. Of them, 70% belong to the Greek Orthodox community and the other 30% are Roman Catholics.
Christian religious figures confirm that the number of Christians in all the Palestinian territories, not just in Gaza, has declined since the start of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in 1948 as tens of thousands have immigrated to Arab and Western countries.
Farid Zahir, a professor of journalism at Birzeit University, told Al-Monitor that the establishment of a Christian media center within Hamas should have been implemented years ago. But, the movement’s media discourse, especially aimed at the West, has largely matured since Hamas won the legislative elections in 2006.
Zahir explained that the challenge facing Hamas is to change the perceptions and convictions entrenched in the Western media toward the movement, as they portray it as a terrorist movement. He expected the European Union to recognize Hamas if it wins the upcoming elections to avoid repeating the mistake of 2006, when the EU refused to recognize Hamas’ victory in the legislative elections.
Mustafa al-Sawaf, former editor-in-chief of the local newspaper Felesteen, which is close to Hamas, told Al-Monitor that the call to establish a Christian media center is a creative idea, and it would help Hamas fix its distorted image in the mind of the Western public and some Arab audiences.
Sawaf pointed out that the challenge facing Hamas in implementing the idea stems from the difficulty of staffing the center in light of the pressure that Christians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are facing due to their work with Hamas. This is what happened in the issue of running on the movement’s list for the legislative elections, he said.
Hamas is striving to build ties in Europe and other Western arenas and to have its name removed from the European and American terrorist lists, and it hopes that Christians in the Palestinian territories will help it achieve that goal by strengthening its relations with them.