GAZA CITY: Gaza's Hamas government on Tuesday denied claims that a Christian man had been forced to convert to Islam, saying he had willingly changed religion.
The statement came a day after the Orthodox Church in Gaza accused an unnamed Islamic organisation of "kidnapping" 24-year-old Ramez alAmash, along with a woman and three girls.
"Through contacts with some officials, the Christian youth Ramez alAmash 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.
Naim said the government had not received any official report on the alleged kidnapping and conversion of Amash and the four others.
He accused the church of "pure baseless fabrications which contain no truth."
"Such accusations lack credibility and push an atmosphere of peaceful coexistence towards tensions, which does not serve the Palestinian people."
On Monday evening, Gaza's Orthodox Church issued a statement accusing an unnamed Islamic group of "kidnapping Ramez alAmash on Saturday along with a woman and three girls who were abducted from their homes last Wednesday."
"This Islamic movement uses dark and dirty methods, sowing fear and using intense pressure, blackmail, and dishonest means including using chemical substances to control and terrify those who have been kidnapped," the statement said.
The church organised a demonstration on Monday evening to protest the alleged kidnapping, with several dozen protesters participating at the Gaza City location.
There are approximately 3,000 Christians living among Gaza's population of 1.5 million. Most of them belong to Orthodox churches.
In recent years, they have spoken of feeling increasingly embattled, and the community was badly shaken by the October 2007 kidnapping and murder of Rami Ayyad, owner of the Palestinian Bible Society bookshop.
His shop, the only Christian bookshop in Gaza, had been attacked earlier in 2007, as well as in 2006, with the attackers calling for it to be shut down.
Four months later, masked men set off a bomb in Gaza City's YMCA, and in May of that year, another bomb exploded at the entrance to the Rosary Sisters' school in Gaza, causing damage but no injuries.
Hamas has stressed a policy of tolerance towards the enclave's Christian minority, but many in the Christian community feel that crimes against them have not been properly investigated and that attacks against them are largely ignored.
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