• June 14, 2006
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    West Bank: Islamic clerics want to close YMCA
West Bank: Islamic clerics want to close YMCA While the religious leaders were not members of Hamas, the failure of the local Hamas-run council to protect the YMCA is concerning local Christians. Hashem al Masri, the deputy mayor and a Hamas member, admitted that the YMCA's name alone was a "challenge to the city''.

"I know it is not civilized to attack it, but it is a challenge to the feeling of our people,'' he said. The YMCA has offices across the West Bank giving work for 140 Palestinians, of whom 84 are Muslim. In Qalgilya, it provides wheelchairs and prosthetics for children. This year's budget is ?50,000 and if the office closes the money will be spent elsewhere. For decades, Christians have felt squeezed and persecuted and have seen their numbers dwindle from about 10 per cent of the population to less than two per cent in Israel and the Palestinian territories. They have been overtaken by Jewish migrants and large Muslim families and have moved on to friendly countries in the West. The election of the Hamas government adds further pressure on the community. So sensitive is the issue that YMCA leadership in the West Bank declined to speak to The Daily Telegraph.

Instead, Norris Lineweaver, the director-general of the YMCA in West Jerusalem, explained that the problem arose simply because the word Christian appears in the group's name.

"It is true that we have a long and proud Christian heritage but it is strictly against our policy to proselytise,'' he said.

"The problems arise because of an unfortunate misunderstanding about our role. We are there simply to help the local councils, whether they are Muslim or Christian, with any youth development programmes they might have.''

Marouf Zahran, the town's former mayor who was ousted by Hamas last year, blamed the new council for not doing enough to protect the office. "The council and other organisations did nothing to stop incitement against the YMCA." A local YMCA worker said Muslims and Christians should work together.

"We belong to two different religions but we are Palestinian nationalists,'' he said. "We live together - Muslims and Christians.''