Christians in Gaza face extinction: The rise of Islam adds to woes of campaigning Orthodox priest

STANDING beside an ancient fresco in Gaza's Greek Orthodox Church the priest, George Awwad, could not deny the likeness between himself and his 5th-century forefather, St Borserios, who built the church. Their features are a perfect match.

Borserios built the church in 405AD after securing the help of the Byzantine Emperor Arcadrus in Constantinople, who encouraged him to spread the word of Christianity. Borserios was granted money, soldiers and engineers to build the church and fight off the hordes in what was then a pagan land.

Today George Awwad is also seeking favours to extend his influence - this time from the Israeli military authorities who occupy the Gaza Strip. His request is a modest one.

In a letter addressed to 'His Excellency General Dov Gazit' (the military governor of Gaza) and 'His Excellency Yitzhak Rabin' (Religious Affairs Minister as well as Prime Minister), Diodores I, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem, has asked for a small piece of land to build a new church and a school in Gaza City. Mr Awwad believes the venture might reinvigorate the community and is hoping for a reply before Easter, which according to the Orthodox calendar gives the Israelis another week.

Since Borserios' day the Christian community of Gaza has experienced many bad times, but today it is facing extinction. Of the 800,000 Palestinians, 60,000 are Christian, the rest Muslim. As in other parts of the Middle East, Christians have been leaving Gaza at alarming rates. Eighty families are currently applying to leave. There were once 40 churches, now there are only two, while mosques are mushrooming and Islamic fervour is on the rise.

Only three Gazans came to morning prayers at Mr Awwad's church in the scrambled alleys of the old city while the mosque behind spewed out worshippers like a football crowd. The priest has erected loudspeakers on the roof to ring out the pre-recorded bells. But the sound was easily drowned out by the loudspeakers next door, announcing the call to prayer.

The priest is not predicting a joyous Easter in Gaza. 'Psychologically speaking the people are tired. They will come to the feast and I will do what I can. But I cannot put happiness inside them.'

Mr Awwad is himself subdued this year as he, like the other Palestinians, has been barred from Israel as a result of the latest closures and cannot attend Easter celebrations in Jerusalem.

Many explanations are given for the Christian demoralisation in Gaza, but persecution by Islamic extremists is not among them. Gaza Christians insist they are all one family, all Palestinians and nationalists together. 'We have always been nationalists first. That is why we were massacred by the Crusaders,' said the priest.

JERUSALEM -Israel has agreed that Faisal Husseini, the top PLO leader in the occupied territories, can head the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace talks, government sources said yesterday, AFP reports.

Until now Israel has refused to have any Palestinian who does not live on the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank in the delegation, let alone an open member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Mr Husseini, 53, lives in east Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967.