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Forced conversion claims staunchly denied by Hamas, rights group

Hamas government in Gaza denied claims that Ramez had been forcibly converted to Islam, saying that the man had willingly converted

The mother and grandmother of Palestinian Ramez Al-Amash, and his sisters comfort each other in their home on 17 July, a day after the Orthodox Church in Gaza accused an unnamed Islamist organisation of “kidnapping” 24-year-old Ramez, along with a woman and three girls (AFP)

The Hamas government in Gaza denied Tuesday claims that a Christian man had been forcibly converted to Islam, saying that the man had willingly converted, as his family and friends held protests at one of the oldest churches in Gaza.

The statement came a day after dozens of Gazan Christians staged a public protest in Gaza City, with the Orthodox Church, accusing an unnamed Islamic organisation of holding two members of their congregation against their will and forcing them to convert to Islam.

Protesters stood in the square of the ancient Church of Saint Porphyrius, angrily demanding the release of Ramez Al-Amash, who was reportedly forced to convert alongside Heba Abu Dawoud and her three children.

“Through contacts with some officials, the Christian youth, Ramez Al-Amash, met with his family in a friendly meeting held at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights,” Hamas Health Minister Bassem Naim said in a statement.

“The young man insisted that he converted to Islam without pressure on him to do so, and that he attended the meeting (with his family) without the presence of armed men before, during or after it,” the statement said.

Al-Amash and the other purported victims are said to have been missing since Wednesday, yet Naim insisted the government had not received any official reports- such as a missing persons report- on the alleged kidnapping.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights confirmed it had met with both Amash and 32-year-old Abu Dawud. “We held separate meetings with Ramez Al-Amash and Heba Abu Dawud and her daughters at the centre, and they confirmed their desire to embrace Islam,” PCHR legal unit director Iyad Alamy told AFP.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights is an independent entity and has received several awards such as the 1996 French Republic Award and the 2002 Bruno Kreisky Award for Outstanding Achievements in the Area of Human Rights. It is funded by several international organisations such as the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Christian Aid and the Danish Dan Church Aid.

Attacks aimed at Christians have rocked the Gaza Strip in recent years. In October 2007, the only Christian bookseller in Gaza, Rami Ayyad, was kidnapped and brutally murdered. His death followed a long history of threats against his establishment. The incident shook the Christian minority to the core.

In early 2008, bombs were set off in a YMCA in Gaza City, as well as at a Christian school. There were no injuries reported

The targeting of Christians – go against the public principles of tolerance endorsed by the ruling Hamas – has caused many to leave the Gaza Strip and their numbers have dropped drastically. There are about 1,500 Christians currently living in Gaza, down from about 3,500 in 2008. They represent only a tiny fraction among the 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza, who are predominately Muslim.

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