Witnesses: Slain Palestinian was Tortured for Spreading Christianity

A prominent Palestinian Christian found dead this past weekend on a Gaza City street was publicly beaten by Islamic gunmen who accused him of spreading Christianity, witnesses and Palestinian Arab security officials have reported.

And although no group has yet taken responsibility for the attack on 32-year-old Rami Khader Ayyad, at least one group says such attacks will persist if "missionary activity" continues to take place now that Hamas has seized complete control of the Gaza Strip.

Since the Islamic group came to power in June, "the situation has changed 180 degrees in Gaza," Islamic leader Sheik Abu Saqer told the New York Sun for a report that appeared Thursday. Saquer's Islamic outreach movement, Jihadia Salafiya, recently formed a military wing to enforce Muslim law in Gaza.

"Jihadia Salafiya and other Islamic movements will ensure Christian schools and institutions show publicly what they are teaching to be sure they are not carrying out missionary activity. No more alcohol on the streets. All women, including non-Muslims, need to understand they must be covered at all times while in public," he said.

"Also, the activities of Internet cafes, pool halls, and bars must be stopped," Saqer added. "If it goes on, we'll attack these things very harshly."

This past Sunday, the body of Rami Khader Ayyad was found with visible signs of torture, including a gunshot would in the head and numerous stab marks.

Witnesses and security officials associated with the Executive Force of the Islamic group Hamas told the Sun that Ayyad – who was the director of Gaza's only Christian bookstore – was publicly beaten a few blocks from his store before being shot to death.

The witnesses reportedly said they saw three armed men, two of them wearing masks, beat Ayyad repeatedly with clubs and the butts of their guns while accusing him of attempting to spread Christianity in Gaza. The witnesses said that after the three men beat Ayyad, they all shot him.

Though Saqer claimed that his group "didn't carry out the Ayyad attack," the Islamic leader said all Christians engaging in missionary activity in Gaza would be "dealt with harshly."

"This missionary activity is endangering the entire Christian community in Gaza," he told the Sun.

Saqer also said there is "no need" for Christians in Gaza to maintain a large number of institutions in the territory and that Hamas "must work to impose an Islamic rule or it will lose the authority it has and the will of the people."

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

Ayyad's murder came, however, 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.

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, the Hamas-led coalition government consisted of a prominent Gaza Christian, Hussam 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.

According to his family and neighbors, Ayyad had regularly received anonymous death threats from people angry about his alleged missionary work.

Ayyad's store, the Teacher's Bookshop, sells Bibles and Christian literature and is run by a Baptist group, the Holy Bible Society, which is dedicated to projecting a Christian presence in the Muslim region.

In April, Ayyad's 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.

Two days after the early-morning explosion, Palestinian Bible Society had announced that it was committed to reopening its doors despite the serious damage to the building. Furthermore, the Bible Society staff publicly stated that they forgive the attackers.

"There is so much love for the people of Gaza that it will take a huge amount of hate to quench the love the team has," the Palestinian Bible Society's executive director, Labib Madanat, reported after the bombing. "I don't think there will be enough hate to quench this love."

Following Ayyad's murder, Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, in a statement, condemned the killing and said Hamas "would not allow anyone to sabotage" Muslim-Christian relations.

Hamas also released a statement, calling Ayyad's death a "murderous crime" and claiming that Muslim-Christian relations "are very strong and will not be affected by such crimes committed by criminal elements."

Meanwhile, the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, said it had launched an investigation and promised that the crime "will not pass unpunished."

According to the Christian ministry Open Doors, Ayyad has left behind his two young children and wife, Pauline, who is five months pregnant.