Palestinian Christians in the Gaza Strip denied claims that the rise of Hamas to power would undermine their religious rights.

"I am not afraid of Hamas, even of the Islamic religion," Anton Shuhaiber, a church council member and member of the board of the local Young Men’s Christian Association, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Thursday, March 2.

The Palestinian resistance group has swept the legislative elections, winning 74 of the 132-seat legislature, entitling it to form the new government.

Since then, feelings of concern and unease have been high among some Christians that the new Hamas-led government would seek to impose Shari`ah on both Muslims and Christians.

Some were also concerned that the government would force Palestinian women to wear hijab and impose harsh punishments for common crimes.

But the majority of Christians in Gaza, a Hamas’s stronghold, said these concerns were groundless.

"For Christians who read the Qur’an carefully and with an open mind there is no fear," asserted Shubaiber, a 68-year-old doctor who studied in England.

He counted as friends Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdulaziz Rantissi, both assassinated by Israel, and points to a spot on his sofa where they used to sit.

Father Artemios Dimitriades agreed.

"We are not afraid of anything, because the Muslims and the Christians here, from the time Islam came, are living in peace and love," said Artemios.

He cited as a case in point a recent mass demonstration against Danish cartoons mocking Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him).

Father Dimitriades went down of the Greek Orthodox church of Saint Perfilios to meet hundreds of Palestinian demonstrators, scores of whom were Christians.

The cartoons, one of them showing the Prophet with a bomb-shaped turban, were first published in Denmark last year, and have been reprinted by newspapers, triggering massive protests across the Muslim world.

The Christian cleric was not afraid that the church would be stone or set on fire during the march because Palestinian Christians were as much offended as their Muslim compatriots.

During the march, one of the Muslim protestors carried a framed copy of the Al-Uhdah Al-Omariyah (Covenant of Omar) signed in 683 by Caliph Omar bin al-Khattab.

In the historical document, Omar promised Sophronios, the patriarch of Al-Quds (Jerusalem) to protect the lives, property and churches of Christians.

The Covenant also guaranteed that the Christians would "not be coerced in their religion."

Both Christians and Muslims see the document as having the force of law, even after more than 13 centuries.

Today, the Palestinian Basic Law, or constitution, reflects that.

It stipulates that "freedom of belief and performance of religious rituals are guaranteed (unless) they violate public order or public morals."

Christian MP Hosam al-Taweel, 42, also rebuffed claims that Hamas would seek to impose Shari`ah once the government takes shape.

"Hamas knows that Palestinian society contains many different shapes, ideas and political colors, and knows also that if it were to try to force the whole of society to act against their beliefs and against their will, it will lose in the long run," he said.

Taweel was elected as one of the six Christians guaranteed seats in the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council.

Enjoying the backing of Hamas and other nationalist groups, he scored the highest among the six.

"As Christians, we are sharing the same problems, the same suffering from the (Israeli) occupation, the high rate of unemployment, the bad economic situation," Taweel maintained.

"We are living in a united society; there is no kind of division, or any kind of discrimination by Muslims."