Minister from Gaza sees reason to remain

Palestinian heads only Baptist church in region

Posted: Monday, September 25, 2006

Hanna Massad has never been to prison, "But I live in one," the Palestinian Baptist minister and Gaza resident said Friday while visiting Juneau.

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Every day, Massad deals with closed checkpoints, closed streets, closed stores and closed lives.

Before the summer of 2000, when the current conflict in territories occupied by Israel escalated, 60,000 people commuted daily from Gaza to jobs in Israel. Now, after repeated suicide bombings against Israelis, the gates are locked and Massad finds himself trapped in a world of poverty and violence. Unemployment runs at about 70 percent. And many who have jobs, such as government workers, receive no pay. At night, the streets are a no-man's land. During the day, Israeli helicopters hover over city streets prowling for targets.

"You go out and drive and you don't know which car the missile will hit - the one in front of you or the one behind you," he said

Living in Gaza isn't easy, but it's a choice Massad, a naturalized U.S. citizen, has made.

Massad, who was in Juneau to deliver a Sunday sermon at Auke Bay's Chapel by the Lake, founded the Christian Mission to Gaza and is the pastor of Gaza Baptist Church, a congregation started by missionaries in 1954. Massad's church is one of only three Christian churches in a land of about 1.5 million Muslims, Massad said. The others are Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox. His mother was a Christian living in Jaffa, now a part of the municipality of Tel-Aviv. She became a refugee in 1948, when 700,000 people, including 55,000 Christians, were driven by war from the new country of Israel. Her family settled in Gaza, then a part of Egypt, and she married, Massad said. After the Six-Day War of 1967, the Israelis took possession of the Gaza Strip, and have occupied it since.

About one-half of 1 percent of Gaza is Christian, Massad said. There have been threats against the church, particularly after anti-Muslim cartoons were published in a Danish newspaper, but the church is trying to be a good neighbor. The church also runs a school that teaches levels up to the fourth grade.

Massad also runs a refugee relief team.

"We take (packages worth) about $50 in food and basic needs to homes in the refugee camps," he said.

Although he lived in California from 1991 to 2000 as a seminary student, Massad, 46, has dealt with the Israeli occupation for much of his life. Massad became an American citizen, but returned to Gaza, in part, to fulfill a promise to his father. Massad is "blessed" with an American passport. But dspite his U.S. citizenship, he still carries Palestinian identification documents. He has waited three days to cross the border, he said. Many wait longer.

"They have (my identity) on their computers," Massad said. "It's very sad people treat you for what you carry and not what you are."

His wife, Suhad, director of the Gaza Palestinian Bible Society, is Jordanian. With a passport from Jordan, she might not be able to return to Gaza with their two young daughters when they head for home in mid-October, she said.

She went to Jordan to give birth to their youngest, 2-month-old Jolene, but her husband couldn't get out of Gaza to be with her, she said.

It been hard for their daughter Joyce, who is nearly two. Sonic booms cause problems, Suhad said, as her husband helped her find the right words. The Israeli Air Force flies supersonic jets near the rooftops of Gaza without warning residents first, Massad said.

"They were having quite of bit of continued fight two or three miles from our home," he said. Sometimes explosions outside cause the ceiling of the church to fall in.

The church library - the only Christian library in Gaza - is a six-story building. Israeli police have used it to shoot Hamas militants. Once during a firefight, a bullet came through a window and hit a staff member in the back. He survived, but it was difficult for him, Massad said.

Suhad recalled hearing shooting outside their home one day. Afraid a bullet might come through the window, she held her daughter close to the floor. She has seen how things have affected the girl, she added.

In Jordan, it is tradition to shoot off fireworks at weddings, Suhad explained. At a recent wedding, the display made her daughter afraid. "We told her, 'see the light,'" Suhad said. Now when she hears explosions, the girl looks at her parents to see how she should react, her mother said.

Still, Gaza is home by choice, Massad said. When he left for America, he promised his father he would return, but it wasn't just a promise that made him come back.

"I felt God wanted me to minister to my people," he said.

Massad considers himself first a Christian, then a Palestinian and then an Arab. The violence in the territories is a symptom of the Israel's occupation, he said. He understands why people are angry. He has seen the deed to the property his father owned before the occupation. "I can forgive," he said. But he understands the feelings of others who have heard from their parents and grandparents about the land that was taken away from them.

"It's like when you have a dog and you keep pushing it in the corner, the dog will turn on you," he said.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.



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