'I Know How to Make You a Muslim'

The murder of a young Baptist bookseller has Gaza's small Christian community on edge.

Rows of plastic chairs where the grieving family receives condolences, a few dozen colorful plastic flower wreaths leaning against the wall at the entrance to the building, and a pale, clean-shaven young man in glasses, cautiously smiling from the martyr posters that cover the walls. But the usual image of Al-Aqsa mosque is missing from the picture, and the handwritten notes on the wreaths have quotations from the Bible, not the Koran. The victim belonged to Gaza's Christian community.

Rami Ayad, 31, was the manager of The Teacher's Bookshop, the only Christian bookstore in Gaza, operated by the Palestinian Bible Society. In addition to selling Bibles and Christian books, it offers computer classes and an Internet cafe. The bookstore has been attacked several times in the past two years. Internet cafes, pharmacies and music stores have been targeted as well, by what is assumed to be radical Islamic groups. Following the first attack in February 2006, a few days after the elections for the Palestinian parliament, in which Hamas won a sweeping victory, a note was found on the doorstep, demanding that the shop close immediately. The Bible Society reopened it a few weeks later.

According to Rami Ayad's widow, Pauline, her husband had not received any personal threats. But in retrospect, she realized there were signs that should have been taken seriously. Two months before the murder, a man entered the bookstore and asked Rami why he was not a Muslim.

"Because I believe in Jesus," Rami replied.

"I know how to make you become a Muslim," the man said, and left.

Two days before the murder, the taxi driver who took Rami home from the bookstore noticed that they were being followed by a car. It parked on the street outside his house, waited for Rami to get out of the taxi, and then drove away. Rami didn't recognize the driver, but he did note that he had a beard. On Saturday, he left the bookstore at four in the afternoon. Two hours later, he called his wife and told her that he might be late. That was the last time anyone heard from him. On the morning of the next day his body was found on a street in Gaza City, shot in the head and stabbed in the chest.

"He sounded a bit tense, but not afraid," says Pauline about that last phone call.

She sits in her apartment on the tenth floor in Rimal, Gaza City's upscale neighborhood, surrounded by female friends and relatives, all dressed in black and many with golden crosses around their necks. A large picture of Jesus hangs on the wall in the hallway and on the table there is a thermos with coffee.

There are about 3,000 Christians in Gaza, living among 1.5 million Muslims. Rami Ayad's brother, Ibrahim, who sits in the yard and receives condolences from friends and relatives while chain smoking, says there used to be more, but that many have emigrated.

"They are better off in Europe or America," he says, even though the story of the Christians and Muslims in Gaza is one of peaceful coexistence. There has never been any friction between the communities, and there has never been a case of a Christian being attacked or killed because of his religion.

"They come to us and say Merry Christmas and we do the same with them, on their holidays. We have good relations. They go to the mosque and we to the church, that is the only difference," says Hafez Michel, Ibrahim's brother-in-law.

They both have many Muslim friends and their children go to mixed schools, and still they can never quite forget that they are different. A minority. "You should become a Muslim, and then you can go to Paradise!" is a comment they get once in a while, and Ibrahim's son Kader, 7, sometimes gets teased at school.

"They say he will go to hell," he says, caressing the child's head.

Ibrahim doesn't always feel comfortable telling people he is a Christian, and sometimes he regrets not having married a Christian Palestinian woman in Israel. Then he could have lived in Bethlehem or Nazareth, instead of Gaza, and there it would have been easier to feel like "a real Christian." There he would never have had to hide his faith. He lived in the United States for 15 years, and now he thinks it might be time to leave Gaza again.

Ibrahim and Hafez agree that something changed when Hamas came to power. Since the January 2006 elections, their wives and daughters have been getting more comments about their appearance.

"People say they should cover their hair and arms. Nowadays they prefer to go by car."

In the women's mourning room on the tenth floor, Pauline's sister-in-law, Madeleine, pinches her black T-shirt.

"We can't go out like this anymore," she says.

But she emphasizes that Hamas is not the problem, that they haven't done anything to curb the Christians' freedom or the rights of the minorities. The problem is ordinary people who think that harassing Christians will please the leaders, and religious extremists who feel that their opinions have gained legitimacy after the Islamic movement's rise to power.

"Would Rami have been killed if Hamas had not won the election?" I ask Ibrahim.

He contemplates this for a moment.

"I don't think so."

Ibrahim is convinced that his brother's assassin had religious or political motives. He doesn't know why they chose Rami, but he thinks it was because of the church he belonged to. Most of the Christians in Gaza are Greek Orthodox, but there are also a few hundred Evangelical Baptists. Rami was one of them.

"People think the Baptists are with the Americans. Many American priests come to The Bible Society," says Ibrahim.

"Do you think the murderers will be caught?"

"Of course. Hamas doesn't like this either."

Ismail Haniyeh has condemned the murder, and several leaders from Hamas have visited the mourning tent and promised that the perpetrators will be caught and punished. Mahmoud Abbas also sent a delegation. Gaza has had enough of internal strife. The last thing it needs is for relations between the religious communities to deteriorate. But the Christians in Gaza can't help but worry. What if Rami Ayad was only the first?

"I am afraid," says Pauline, and gently caresses her belly. She is eight months pregnant and has two small children to care for, George, 4, and Wusam, 2 and a half, who are now fatherless.

Madeleine hasn't slept since the murder. "Every time I hear a noise I think they have come to kill my husband and son."

She will not let Kader go out and play alone, like he used to.

"Would you like to leave Gaza?"

"Inshallah," she says with a smile, shrugging. In spite of everything, Gaza is still her home. But Ibrahim has made up his mind. "I want to find out who killed my brother, and then I will take my family and go away from here."

Where? It doesn't matter.

"Anywhere but Gaza," says Ibrahim and lights another cigarette.

Catrin Ormestad is a Swedish journalist living in Israel. Her book "Gaza: A love story" will soon be published in Sweden by Norstedts.