By Mohammed Omer
GAZA CITY, Nov 27 (IPS) - As Sunday dawns in Gaza City the traditional Islamic call to prayer mingles melodically with church bells.
Side by side, mosque and church doors swing open, welcoming the faithful. Greetings are eagerly exchanged.
The October kidnapping and murder of Rami Ayyad, the manager of Gaza's only Christian bookstore, sent shudders through the Christian community.
Was this a hate crime or simply a tragic occurrence?
Monsignor Manuel Musallam, head of Gaza's Roman Catholic community, doubts the attack was religiously motivated.
"Rami was not only Christian," the Musallam told IPS. "He was Palestinian. Violent acts against Christians are not a phenomenon unique to Gaza."
Immediately upon hearing of the murder, the elected Prime Minister Ismail Hanyieh of Hamas ordered the Palestinian ministry of interior to dispatch an investigative committee to "urgently look into the matter", labelling Ayyad's death a "murderous crime".
"We are all one people who suffer together for the sake of freedom, independence and restoration of our inalienable citizenship rights," Hanyieh stated publicly. "We are waging a single struggle and refuse to allow any party to tamper with or manipulate this historical relationship, [between Muslims and Christians]."
Currently, Palestine's Christian community hovers between two and 10 percent.
In Gaza, approximately 3,000 Christians still call this former Egyptian territory home -- with the majority of the community living within Gaza City near the three main churches: The Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, and the Gaza Baptist.
Christians in Gaza have the same rights as their Muslim neighbours, rights guaranteed under the Palestinian Declaration of Independence. Within the Legislative Council, several seats have been reserved for Christian leaders.
Seventeen-year-old Christian student Ali Al Jeldah told IPS about attending a dual faith school: "My life is normal and I've never felt oppressed. Being Muslim or Christian is never an issue."
"I have many Muslim friends. We hang out and study together with no differences at all," Al Jeldah said.
Lelias Ali, a 16-year-old Muslim student at Holy Family School, concurs. "We have a unity of struggle, a unity of aim -- to live under the same circumstances. This land is for both of us and being a Christian or Muslim should not separate us" she said.
"I have lots of friends. Being Muslim or Christian is not an issue," Diana Al Sadi, a 17-year-old student told IPS.
"I go to my friends' homes for happy and sad occasions," Al Sadi said, "including Christmas and Easter. They visit mine during Eid [the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting]."
When the students were asked if Christians are being harassed by Hamas or the Palestinian police, all agreed that this was not the case.
"Every society has extremists," Lelias Ali states. "Sometimes I'm criticised for not wearing my Hijab. But that has nothing to do with being Muslim or Christian. Those people don't represent our Palestinian society."
Pausing for a moment, she considered the assertions in the international media regarding Muslims and Christians: "We should not let such ideas sneak into our minds. If we don't unite, then we lose."
Asked if Christians in Gaza feel singled out or oppressed, Musallam says, "Palestinian Christians are not a religious community set apart in some corner. They are part of the Palestinian people."
But what of Hamas, a fundamentalist Islamic political organisation? Have Palestinian Christians experienced persecution or racism under their leadership, as Western papers insinuate?
"Our relationship with Hamas is as people of one nation," Musallam contends. "Hamas doesn't fight religious groups. Its fight is against the Israeli occupation.
And what of the Western media assertions that Gaza's Christians are considering emigrating because of Islamic oppression?
Sighing, Musallam corrects the misconception. "If Christians emigrate," he states resolutely, "It's not because of Muslims. It is because we suffer from Israeli siege. We seek a life of freedom. A life different from the life of the dogs we are currently forced to live."