Gaza Chris­tians make up frac­tion of pop­u­la­tion

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Only about 1,200 Chris­tians re­main in Gaza-only a tiny frac­tion of the pop­u­la­tion in a ter­ri­tory run by Ha­mas Is­lamists-but artist Naser Jeldha is do­ing what he can to pre­serve its Chris­tian her­itage through art. In his stu­dio in the heart of old Gaza, not far from a 5th cen­tury Ortho­dox church, Jeldha spends his days carv­ing re­li­gious fig­urines, chis­elling low-re­lief carv­ings of Bib­li­cal scenes and paint­ing por­traits of Je­sus (PBUH), Mary Mag­da­lene and the saints. “My mes­sage is about my re­li­gion,” said the grey­bearded 57-year-old, a mem­ber of the Greek Ortho­dox com­mu­nity. “I want to make it vis­ual, I want to make peo­ple see it, not only to be kept as texts in church.”

As he works, steel-rimmed spec­ta­cles perched on his nose, Jeldha lis­tens to Byzan­tine prayer mu­sic that echoes softly around the stu­dio, cre­at­ing an at­mos­phere from an­other era. The walls are cov­ered in his pic­tures, with more laid out on the arms of chairs and so­fas, and oth­ers propped on a 150year-old Rus­sian pi­ano in the cor­ner. As well as paint­ing and sculp­ture, Jeldha plays the ac­cor­dion, pi­ano and gui­tar.

In the run up to Christ­mas - cel­e­brated on Jan. 7 in the Ortho­dox church - Jeldha is busy mak­ing pieces as gifts for friends and relatives. While he has been an artist for 35 years, he does not dis­play his works or of­fer them for sale. In­stead, he presents them as gifts at wed­dings or events on the Chris­tian cal­en­dar. He does, how­ever, have plans for a pub­lic show­ing soon. In the next two weeks, he is also hop­ing he will be one of about 800 Chris­tians granted a per­mit by Is­rael to leave Gaza and travel to Beth­le­hem, in the Is­raeli-oc­cu­pied West Bank, to at­tend prayer ser­vices in Je­sus’s(PBUH), birth­place. “We have ap­plied for per­mits and if we get them I in­tend to travel with my fam­ily,” said Jeldha, who is de­ter­mined to re­main in Gaza de­spite the de­par­ture of many Chris­tians over the last decade in the face of ris­ing eco­nomic hard­ship. While Gaza’s Chris­tians gen­er­ally en­joy good re­la­tions with their Mus­lim neigh­bours, there have been iso­lated attacks by hard­line Salafist groups on Chris­tian tombs and sym­bols. Ha­mas, the Is­lamist move­ment that has ruled Gaza since 2006, is keen to en­sure the Chris­tian com­mu­nity feels safe and pro­tected. Its lead­ers oc­ca­sion­ally visit the heads of the three Gaza churches to build stronger re­la­tions. Jeldha ac­knowl­edged that the econ­omy was suf­fer­ing, with the block­ade im­posed by Is­rael and Egypt, a move to pres­sure Ha­mas, lim­it­ing trade, driv­ing up costs and caus­ing de­spair. De­spite that, Jeldha, whose white front door is adorned with a small cross painted in blue, said he would never leave. “I have lived in this neigh­bor­hood for 54 years. I have broth­erly and won­der­ful re­la­tions with Mus­lims,” said the father of four. “Gaza is beau­ti­ful and I will not leave it...I do not feel I am a stranger here.” — Reuters

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