Hundreds of Muslims pressed their way down the narrow street that leads to the Greek Orthodox church of Saint Perfilios in Gaza City, as the Islamic world raged over the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed.


Hundreds of Muslims pressed their way down the narrow street that leads to the Greek Orthodox church of Saint Perfilios in Gaza City, as the Islamic world raged over the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed.

They poured into the small square off the street, where the church and its offices are located.

Father Artemios Dimitriades, 28, a priest from Greece who has spent more than half his life in the Holy Land, went down with his bishop to meet them.

But he had no fear that the church would be stoned or set on fire, as had happened elsewhere in the Muslim world, because the crowds included a large group of Christians who were also offended by the caricatures.

And also because one of the Muslims was carrying a framed copy of the Covenant of Omar, a document little known outside Christian and Islamic circles in the Holy Land.

The Al-Uhdah Al-Omariyah was signed in 683 by the Muslim conqueror of Jerusalem, Caliph Omar bin al-Khattab. In it, he promised the city’s patriarch, Sophronios, to protect the lives, property, churches and worship of Christians.

It guaranteed that they would “not be coerced in their religion.”

Among the marchers that day in late January were members of Hamas, the radical Islamist group that is poised to form the next Palestinian government after its shock election win.

Since Hamas’s victory, there have been murmurings of unease by some Christians that the new government might seek to impose rigid Islamic law, with visions of women being forced to wear headscarves and harsh punishments imposed for common crime.

Moreover, there are fears about mandatory segregation of boys and girls in schools and of children being forced to take classes in Islamic religion.

The future under “Hamas could be kind of scary,” one Roman Catholic priest in Jerusalem, a Westerner, told AFP.

But Father Artemios and others in Gaza, both Christian and Muslim, say such concerns are baseless.

And if anyone has apparent cause to feel threatened, it is the Christian community here of around only 3,000 souls among some 1.4 million Muslims.

Artemios says “we are not afraid of anything, because the Muslims and the Christians here, from the time Islam came, are living in peace and love.”

That was the message which he said the marchers brought to the church: “We don’t have any problems with the Christians. We respect each other and we believe in freedom of religion.”

But what if all this optimism proves to be ill-founded? What if, as a more radical Hamas leader recently proposed, the new government were to seek to impose Islamic law, or sharia?

One answer comes from Hosam al-Taweel, 42, an independent who was elected as one of the six Christians guaranteed seats in the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council.

He got the highest number of votes of the six, because he had the backing not only of Hamas itself but also of other nationalist groups.

“Hamas knows that Palestinian society contains many different shapes, ideas and political colors, and knows also that if it were to try to force the whole of society to act against their beliefs and against their will, it will lose in the long run,” he said.

As Christians, “we are sharing the same problems, the same suffering from the (Israeli) occupation, the high rate of unemployment, the bad economic situation. We are living in a united society; there is no kind of division, or any kind of discrimination” by Muslims.

And he points to the Covenant of Omar, saying both Christians and Muslims see it as having the force of law, even after more than 13 centuries.

Today, the Palestinian Basic Law, or constitution, reflects that. It stipulates that “freedom of belief and performance of religious rituals are guaranteed (unless) they violate public order or public morals.”

Taweel’s uncle, Anton Shuhaiber, scornfully dismissed “foreigners always asking when they come here, ‘will Christians be worse off under Hamas?'”

Shuhaiber is a 68-year-old doctor who studied in England.

He is also a member of the church council and the board of the local Young Men’s Christian Association, which he says has “left its fingerprints” on Gazan society through the cross-community work it does.

He counted as friends Hamas leaders Ahmed Yassin and Abdulaziz Rantissi, both assassinated by Israel, and points to a spot on his sofa where they used to sit.

“I am not afraid of Hamas, even of the Islamic religion,” he said.

For Christians, who read the Koran carefully and with an open mind, “there is no fear.” The real problem, he said, is the conflict now between an increasingly godless Western culture and Islamic culture.

“We have a role of working to stop that conflict. And our role is to get the (two sides) to understand each other well.”