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British cardinal pays rare visit to Gaza's Christians

Associated Press Associated Press 6/11/2016 By FARES AKRAM, Associated Press
Nuns attend a Sunday mass held by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, at the Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza City, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra) © The Associated Press Nuns attend a Sunday mass held by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, at the Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza City, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales visited the Gaza Strip on Sunday, hoping to give a spiritual lift to the territory's tiny Christian minority.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols praised Gaza's Christians, whose numbers have dwindled during a decade of Hamas rule and an Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

"There've always been Christians here. Their numbers are small, but I believe their faith is strong," he said.

Before Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, the Christian population in the coastal enclave was over 3,000. Today, just 1,200 Christians remain, most of them Orthodox.

Christian leaders blame the shattered economy, conflict with Israel and the blockade for encouraging Christians to move out.

But community members have also complained that they do not feel comfortable under Hamas rule.

Christians and their property have occasionally come under attack since Hamas seized power, but it's not clear if they were targeted by the Islamic militant group or members of more extreme factions. Hamas denies it mistreats Christians.

Cardinal Nichols led Mass at the Holy Family Church on Sunday, calling on Mary to "pray for the protection" of the Christian community in Gaza.

He first visited Gaza in 2014 the end of a 50-days of fighting between Israel and Hamas. More than 2,200 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, were killed, according to Palestinian and U.N. figures. In Israel, 66 soldiers and seven civilians were killed.

Thousands of buildings and homes in Gaza were damaged from the fighting. The cardinal said Sunday that while he saw "some signs of rebuilding, there is an awful lot of damage that is still untouched."

"The whole world is worried about the stability of the Middle East," where both Christians and Muslims "are persecuted and murdered by the extremists," he said.

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