Christian 'forced conversion' claim roils Gaza
GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories - The Associated Press
A Palestinian Christian holds a poster of Ramez Al-Amash, 25, who was allegedly kidnapped, during a rally for his release, at a Greek Orthodox church in Gaza City, Monday, July 16, 2012. AP Photo
Gaza's Hamas government today denied claims that a Christian man had been forced to convert to Islam, saying he had willingly changed religion.
The statement came a day after the Orthodox Church in Gaza accused an unnamed Islamist organisation of "kidnapping" 24-year-old Ramez al-Amash, as well as a woman and her three daughters, and forcing them to convert to Islam.
Health minister Bassem Naim, a Hamas leader in Gaza, denied the allegations.
"Through contacts with some officials, the Christian youth Ramez al-Amash met with his family in a friendly meeting held at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights," he said in a statement.
"The young man insisted that he converted to Islam without pressure on him to do so," the statement said, adding that no official report had been submitted on the alleged kidnapping and conversion of Amash and the four others.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights confirmed it had met with both Amash and the woman involved, 32-year-old Heba Abu Dawud.
"We held separate meetings with Ramez al-Amash and Heba Abu Dawud and her daughters at the centre, and they confirmed their desire to embrace Islam," PCHR legal unit director Iyad Alamy told AFP.
He stressed that there was "no truth at all" to claims that Amash, Abu Dawud or her daughters were kidnapped.
He said Amash had met with his parents at the centre, and his father had accepted the conversion and asked him to move back home, though his mother continued to reject her son's apparent decision.
"We're working to try to solve this issue so the young man can live with his family normally," he said.
Abu Dawud also met with workers from the centre along with her daughters, and said she had converted "of her own free will," Alamy said.
She expressed willingness "to allow her husband to see his daughters, but said she considers herself divorced on the basis of her understanding of Islamic law which does not allow a Muslim woman to marry a Christian," he added.
The incident has stirred tensions in Gaza, where a tiny Christian community has complained of feeling beleaguered and unprotected by the ruling Islamist movement Hamas.
In his statement, Naim accused the church of "pure baseless fabrications which contain no truth." "Such accusations lack credibility and push an atmosphere of peaceful coexistence towards tensions, which does not serve the Palestinian people." In its statement, circulated at a protest of several dozen people on Monday evening, the Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church in Gaza City accused an unnamed Islamist group of "kidnapping Ramez al-Amash on Saturday along with a woman and three girls who were abducted from their homes last Wednesday." "The Islamist group tries to persuade young Christian men and women to convert to Islam and to destroy the Christian presence in Gaza," the statement said.
"This Islamist movement uses dark and dirty methods, sowing fear and using intense pressure, blackmail, and dishonest means including using chemical substances to control and terrify those who have been kidnapped," it said.
There are approximately 3,000 Christians living among Gaza's population of 1.5 million. Most of them belong to Orthodox churches.
The community was badly shaken by the October 2007 kidnapping and murder of Rami Ayyad, the owner of the only Christian book shop in Gaza, which had earlier been attacked in 2007 and 2006.
Hamas has stressed a policy of tolerance towards the enclave's Christian minority, but many in the Christian community feel that crimes against them have not been properly investigated and that attacks against them are largely ignored.