Christian Activist Killed in Gaza

Gaza City, Gaza Strip — A prominent Palestinian Christian activist was found dead on a Gaza City street Sunday, sending a shudder of fear through a tiny Christian community feeling increasingly insecure since the Islamic Hamas seized control last summer.

The body of Rami Khader Ayyad, the 32-year-old director of Gaza's only Christian bookstore, bore a visible gunshot wound to the head, and an official at Gaza's Shifa Hospital said he was also stabbed numerous times. Ayyad had been missing since Saturday afternoon.

Ayyad regularly received anonymous death threats from angry people who accused him of missionary work, a rarity among Gaza's Christians. His store, which is associated with a Christian group called the Palestinian Bible Society, was firebombed in April.

"We feel Rami was killed for his Christian faith," said Simon Azazian, a spokesman at the Bible Society's head office in Jerusalem.

About 3,200 Christians live in Gaza among 1.4 million Muslims, and the Christian community has grown uneasy since Hamas routed forces of the secular Fatah movement and seized control of the coastal strip in June. During the takeover, vandals ransacked a Roman Catholic convent and an adjacent school, breaking crosses and smashing the face of a ceramic Jesus.

Ayyad had been increasingly worried about threats on his store, Azazian said.

On Friday, he noticed that he was being followed by a car with no license plates. Ayyad called his family Saturday afternoon to tell them he had been abducted but would be freed later in the evening, said Azazian. Police were notified, but his body was found the next morning.

Ayyad left two young children and a pregnant wife.

In recent months, shadowy Islamic groups have carried out dozens of attacks on Internet cafes, music shops and other targets associated with the West.

Some of the attacks, though not the one against Ayyad's bookstore, have been claimed by a little-known extremist Islamic group calling itself the Swords of Justice. Hamas has vehemently denied involvement in any of the violence.

Christian activists said they feared the death would disrupt their quiet but uneasy relationship with the Muslim majority.

"He paid his life for his faith, for his dignity, and the dignity of the Bible and Jesus Christ," said Issa, a 24-year-old Christian who came to pay his respects at Ayyad's home. "I am terrified and cannot believe this has happened in Gaza," said Issa, declining to give his last name because of the tense atmosphere.

Expressing a common sentiment among Christian mourners, he stopped short of blaming Hamas, saying only that the "enemy of God, love, justice and Jesus" was behind the crime.

"It's too early to talk about the motive of this crime, which might be dangerous," said Hussam Tawil, a Palestinian lawmaker who represents Gaza's Christians.

Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of Gaza's Hamas government, expressed "great sadness" over Ayyad's death and said he ordered an investigation.

"I stress the strong relations between Christians and Muslims in the Palestinian arena," he said. "We are part of the same nation ... and we are not going to allow anyone to sabotage this historical relationship."