Under Israeli attack: Who are the Christians of Gaza?

They’re small in number, but with deep roots that they are unwilling to leave behind.

Worshippers in the courtyard light their candles from each other
Worshippers in the courtyard of the Church of Saint Porphyrius in the Zeitoun neighbourhood of the Old City of Gaza light their candles on April 15, 2023 [Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

In one of the defining moments so far of Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza, a deadly explosion at the al-Ahli Arab Hospital on October 17 killed close to 500 people, according to Palestinian health authorities.

Two days later, Israel bombed the Church of Saint Porphyrius, the Gaza Strip’s oldest, killing at least 18 people.

The deadly attacks on the hospital — an Anglican institution — and the church have brought into sharp focus the enclave’s embattled Christian minority, which, like the rest of the Gaza Strip, is under assault from relentless Israeli bombardment.

The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem described the attack on the church as a “war crime”.

Worshippers attend a funeral at Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church, in Gaza City
Mourners attend a funeral for Palestinians killed in an Israeli attack that damaged the Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church in Gaza City on October 20, 2023 [Mohammed al-Masri/Reuters]

The Christian community was left reeling, yet most have not left the besieged city, which lays claim to a rich seam of Christian heritage going back two millennia.

So who are Gaza’s Christians?

How many Christians live in Gaza and where did they come from?

The number of Christians in Gaza has dwindled in recent years. Today there are only approximately 1,000 left, a sharp drop from the 3,000 registered in 2007, when Hamas assumed complete control over the enclave.

According to Kamel Ayyad, a spokesperson for the Church of Saint Porphyrius, the majority of the population is from Gaza itself. The rest fled here after the creation of the state of Israel, which displaced about 700,000 Palestinians – an event they refer to as the Nakba, or “catastrophe”.

Hamas rule brought an Israel-led land, air and sea blockade, accelerating the flight of Christians from the poverty-stricken enclave. “It’s become very difficult for people to live here,” says Ayyad. “Many of the Christians left for the West Bank, for America, Canada or the Arab world, seeking better education and health.”

While most of Gaza’s Christians belong to the Greek Orthodox faith, smaller numbers worship at the Catholic Holy Family Church and the Gaza Baptist Church. The former recently released a video of parish children praying, the din of bombs in the background.

There is a fluidity to the Christian community in Gaza, with many families comprising members of different denominations. Fadi Salfiti, whose family fled from Nablus to Gaza in 1948, attended all churches.

“On Sunday mornings, we would go to the Orthodox church, in the afternoons, we would go to the Catholic church, and at night we’d go to the Protestant church,” he said.

More Than 155 Palestinians Killed In Israeli Air Attacks On Gaza
A Palestinian man shouts as he and others try to find their dead relatives among bodies of Palestinians laid out on the ground outside al-Shifa Hospital on December 27, 2008, in Gaza City, Gaza [Abid Katib/Getty Images]

Salfiti was attending a youth conference in Madrid when Israel launched a ground offensive in 2008. To this day, he remains in Spain, where he now works as a management trainer. The attack on Saint Porphyrius killed his cousin’s three children: Majd, 10; Juli, 12; and Suhail, 14.

How long have Christians lived in Gaza?

Gaza’s Christian legacy stretches right back to the days when the faith was a persecuted sect promising salvation to the downtrodden.

In the Bible, after Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, Philip the Apostle travelled down the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza to spread the word. According to the scriptures, Philip was present at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, where Jesus turned water into wine.

The Church of Saint Porphyrius is the oldest in the enclave. It was originally founded in the 5th century after the death of the eponymous bishop who converted the city’s pagans to Christianity, burning idols and temples. After the Persian conquest of the 7th century, the church was converted to a mosque. It was later rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th century.

Palestine’s Christians, totalling 50,000 across the occupied territories, are sometimes referred to as ‘living stones’, a metaphor first invoked by Peter the Apostle, the ex-fisherman called upon to be a disciple of Jesus, to describe the role of believers in building the spiritual house of God. Today, the term harks to their special status as custodians of a faith born on their land.

How are relations between Christians and Muslims in Gaza?

Living under siege, Christians in Gaza attest to a spirit of solidarity that has united faiths in their struggle for survival and their dream of freedom.

“We are all Palestinians. We live in the same city, with the same suffering. We are all under siege and are all the same,” said Ayyad.

Generally speaking, the Christian community has always played an important role in Palestinian life, producing luminaries such as Issa El-Issa, founder of the highly influential Jaffa-based newspaper Falastin, a key driver of Palestinian Arab nationalism during the British Mandate, and Edward Said, who laid bare Western complacency towards the East in his seminal book, Orientalism.

In Gaza, too, members of the tiny community play an outsized role.

“They tend to be very educated, with a strong presence in business and in the voluntary sector,” says Salfiti.

The YMCA, for example, which offers sports, arts, educational and welfare activities for Palestinians in Gaza of all faiths, is Christian-run. Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, devastated by last month’s Israeli air raid, which killed hundreds, is owned and operated by Anglicans.

Cut off from the world under the Israeli-led blockade, the community has at times felt vulnerable. In 2007, it was rocked by the murder of Rami Ayyad, manager of the Teacher’s Bookshop, a Baptist-run store in the strip that had also been firebombed months earlier. No group took responsibility for the murder, which Hamas condemned, saying they “would not allow anyone to sabotage” Muslim-Christian relations.

But the killers were never brought to justice.

Christmas Bethlehem
Palestinian scouts march during Christmas parade towards the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, December 24, 2022 [Majdi Mohammed/AP Photo]

Overall, however, the communities are united in resisting their collective entrapment in what has been called the world’s largest open-air prison.

Just as Muslims have been denied permits to visit Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, Christians have also been unable to visit sacred places like Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, revered as the birthplace of Jesus. Both communities are cut off from family members in the West Bank.

What is the current situation for Christians in Gaza?

Under the recent Israeli bombardments, Christians and Muslims alike sought refuge at Saint Porphyrius.

After the bombing, they all moved to the nearby Holy Family Church, located 400 metres away. About 560 people are now sheltering there, says Nisreen Anton, general project manager of the church.

Parish priest Gabriel Romanelli has been stranded in Bethlehem since the war started and remains in contact with his flock. In a message recorded on October 24, he called for the bombing to stop and for a humanitarian corridor to be opened up.

“Please, let them know that the parish … is filled with ordinary people and Muslim neighbours. These are civilians who pose no danger to anyone,” he said.

As with many Palestinians in Gaza, Anton is determined to stay put. Huddled in the church with her three daughters, aged eight, nine and 12, she said the situation is getting worse every day.

“The Christians are suffering like any other Gaza people,” she said. “This is our land and we will not leave. Can you imagine that someone called you and forced you and your family to go to another place?”

“We will stay.”

Source: Al Jazeera