Abducted Palestinian Christian Leader Found Dead

The body of a prominent Palestinian Christian was found stabbed and shot on a Gaza City street, Palestinian officials said Sunday, further raising fears among Gaza's Christian community.

Neighbors say Rami Khader Ayyad, the 32-year-old director of Gaza's only Christian bookstore, had been abducted by unknown assailants near his home late Saturday afternoon before his body was found the next morning with a visible gunshot wound to the head and numerous stab wounds.

Ayyad's store, the Teacher's Bookshop, is associated with the Palestinian Bible Society, and Ayyad regularly received anonymous death threats from people angry about his missionary work, his family reported. In April, the bookstore was firebombed during a wave of attacks by a shadowy Muslim "vice squad" on Internet cafes, music shops and other targets associated with Western influence.

"The Christian community and all of Gaza society are feeling deeply shocked because of this awful, ugly crime," said Hussam Tawil, a Palestinian lawmaker who represents Gaza's Christians, according to The Associated Press.

Tawil would not say who he believed was responsible and added that discussion on the motive of the crime is "too early" and "might be dangerous."

Simon Azazian, a spokesman at the Bible Society's head office in Jerusalem, however, told AP that the organization felt Ayyad was killed for his Christian faith.

The latest incident comes as Christian leaders in Gaza have called on Hamas officials to make greater efforts to protect Christians in light of the instability and lawlessness in Gaza following the Islamic group's takeover in June.

Previously, Christians were respected citizens and considered part of Gaza's elite as they ran schools, hospitals and businesses. The late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, assigned Christians to top positions in the government and the Fatah movement.

Even after Hamas wrested control of Gaza strip in mid-June, the Hamas-led coalition government consisted of a prominent Gaza Christian, lawmaker Tawil. Moreover, Hamas forces had protected Gaza's Greek Orthodox Church from angry Muslims after Pope Benedict XVI's comment on Islam.

Yet Muslim-Christian relations are reportedly unraveling as attacks against Christians continue despite Hamas' promises to protect the community.

Last month, an 80-year-old Christian woman in Gaza City was attacked by a masked man who, during the course of the robbery, beat her hands with a club and also hit her head with a tool causing her to bleed.

"As soon as I opened the door, he pushed me inside and shouted: 'Where is the money, you infidel?' I shouted back: I'm not an infidel – I'm a proud Palestinian Arab," Claire Farah Tarazi recalled to the Jerusalem Post.

The assailant then locked her in her bedroom as he searched for money, but Tarazi was able to escape through another bedroom door and went to a neighbor for help.

Tarazi's relatives pointed out that she was attacked because of her faith.

"The fact that the attacker called her an infidel speaks for itself," a relative, who was not identified, told the Post. "He clearly knew that this was a Christian woman living alone. He would not have dared to do the same thing to a Muslim woman."

About 3,000 Christians live in Gaza among 1.5 million Muslims and relations between two communities have generally been good.

"We are one people waging a single struggle for independence and freedom," said Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, according to Reuters.

Haniyeh condemned the killing of Ayyad and said the Islamist movement "would not allow anyone to sabotage" Muslim-Christian relations.

"Muslim and Christian relations are very strong and will not be affected by such crimes committed by criminal elements," expressed Hamas in a statement Sunday, calling Ayyad's death a "murderous crime."

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a faction that enjoys broad support among Gaza's Christians, also issued a statement, calling the killing "a desperate attempt to sabotage the good social relations in Palestinian society and the friendly relations between Christian and Muslims."

The Hamas-run Interior Ministry, which said the crime "will not pass unpunished," said it had launched an investigation and promised to bring Ayyad's killers to justice.

According to AP, Ayyad left two young children and a pregnant wife.

Christian Post reporter Ethan Cole contributed to this report.