Outcry in Palestine after Hamas 'bans celebrating Christmas'
On December 15, Walid Owaidah, the Director of the 'General Authority of Preaching and Guidance' at the Hamas-run Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf) and Affairs in Gaza issued an internal document saying that a fatwa (Islamic religious ruling) should be drawn up imposing restrictions on Christmas celebrations.
The leaked document, which was addressed to Abdel Hadi Al-Agha, Hamas' Deputy Minister of Religious Endowments and Affairs, also said that an online campaign should be undertaken to discourage Palestinian Muslims from participating in Christian celebrations of Christmas.
Approximately 3,000 Palestinian Christians lived in the Gaza Strip in 2009, but their numbers are believed to have decreased to 1,300 since then, partly because of the crippling siege Israel imposes on the territory.
Some Palestinians slammed the Hamas ruling as "racist", interpreting it as a call for Palestinian Muslims to distance themselves from Christians.
The Hamas decision is not believed to be related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Palestinian Muslim leaders and officials, such as the late Yasser Arafat, have historically attended celebrations of Christmas and Easter.
The Palestine Forum, an independent group promoting dialogue among Palestinians, slammed the Hamas decision, saying in a Facebook post that: "Palestinian Christians are us", and adding that it "rejected and condemned the decision", expressing its "astonishment" that the Hamas-run ministry had organised a body called "the General Authority of Preaching and Guidance" in the first place.
The Palestine Forum also said that the controversial document was a violation of Hamas' own 2017 political charter, which stated: "the Palestinian people are one people, made up of all Palestinians, inside and outside of Palestine, irrespective of their religion, culture or political affiliation."
The Palestinian Democratic Union (FIDA), a left-wing party, called the document "a blatant departure from the values of tolerance and brotherhood that have always prevailed among the Palestinian people, Christians and Muslims alike".
Other Palestinians went further: "This is a dangerous document by Hamas," Ramallah-based human rights activist Shaheen Fahmi was quoted by the Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post as saying. "This is a crime and those responsible should be held accountable."
However, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said that the Islamist movement "values the historic relationship between the Muslim and Christian members of the Palestinian people, who live together in the land of Palestine".
Following the outrage, the Hamas-run Ministry of Religious Endowments issued a statement saying that the internal document "had nothing to do with Christians celebrating their festivals, performing their religious rites, or participating in public life but was about guiding Muslims regarding their religious rules about taking part in non-Muslim religious occasions".
The ministry said that it was "the official religious authority for all residents of Palestine – Muslims, Christians, and others".
While some strict Muslim clerics prohibit participation in Christmas celebrations, many say that it is permitted to congratulate Christians and followers of other religions on their religious holidays.
Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip ever since 2007, following a conflict with Fatah, the dominant Palestinian faction in the occupied West Bank.