Christmas in the Gaza Strip is quiet if not utterly dreary this year as droves of frightened Christians flee the territory after the recent murder of a prominent Christian leader by unidentified extremists.
Few Christmas trees or decorations are on display in Gaza's tiny Christian community, including in churches. Christians – who were once well-respected and influential citizens in Gaza – are now hastily selling properties to resettle in the West Bank, or quietly huddled in empty churches to observe what should be one of the most joyous Christian holidays.
"We have a very sad Christmas," said Essam Farah, acting pastor of Gaza's Baptist Church, which has canceled its annual children's party because of the grim atmosphere, according to The Associated Press.
The Baptist Church had only 10 people attend the regular weekly prayer service on Sunday – down from an average of 70. There was also no Christmas tree visible.
Moreover, the church's full-time pastor, his family and 12 employees from a related Christian bookstore have relocated to the West Bank, which is under the control of a pro-West government.
Hundreds of Christians hope to travel to Bethlehem in the West Bank this Christmas and many don't plan to return to Gaza.
The strip's community of 3,000 Christians has not recovered from the death of 32-year-old Rami Ayyad, the manager of Gaza's only Christian bookstore, who was brutally killed and then discarded on the streets of Gaza in early October.
Ayyad was a member of the Baptist church and had received regular death threats from Muslim extremists angry over what they perceived to be his missionary activity. The bookstore was also firebombed six months before Ayyad's death.
Gaza is overwhelmingly Muslim and fear of persecution has risen since the Muslim fundamentalist group, Hamas, took over the territory in June. The United States and Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group.
Although Hamas has promised to protect Christians in Gaza, persecution has increased in the territory. Moreover, a high level Hamas leader is accused of being behind Ayyad's murder, although no action has been taken to prosecute him.
In addition to persecution, Israel's heavy economic sanctions compounded with continuous violence in Gaza have forced many believers to abandon their homeland.
"In previous years we didn't see this rate of migration," said the Rev. Manuel Musallem, head of Gaza's Roman Catholic Church, according to AP. "Now, exit is not on individual basis. Whole families are leaving, selling their cars, homes and all their properties."
Gaza Christians are using their travel permits to leave the territory and then plan to remain as illegal residents in the West Bank.
There are about 75,000 Palestinian Christians but only about 3,000, mostly Greek Orthodox, living among Gaza's 1.5 million population of Muslims. Ibrahim Ayyad, brother of murdered Rami Ayyad, estimates that up to 70 percent of the Christians in Gaza would leave if given the opportunity, according to Mission Network News.