Gaza’s Christians fear ‘threat of extinction’ amid Israel war

Israel’s assault on Gaza could spell the end of the Christian community’s long history in the enclave.

Worshippers attend a funeral at Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church, in Gaza City
Mourners attend a funeral after an Israeli attack at the Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church [Mohammed al-Masri/Reuters]

Gaza Strip – When Israeli bombs began pummelling the once-bustling streets of Gaza City, Diana Tarazi and her family fled to the Holy Family Church, the only Roman Catholic place of worship in the Gaza Strip.

The 38-year-old Palestinian Christian, her husband and three children huddled alongside fellow churchgoers and Muslim neighbours and friends, lulling their children to an exhausted sleep amid the sounds of bombing, muttering soft words of encouragement to each other.

“Together, we try to get through the war until it ends – and we survive it,” Tarazi told Al Jazeera.

Their sense of safety was shattered on October 19, when Israel bombed the nearby Church of Saint Porphyrius, Gaza’s oldest, killing at least 18 people. The Israeli army said in a statement that the church was not the target of the attack.

“The missile fell directly on it,” Tarazi said of the Greek Orthodox site. “We cannot believe that the church was not their aim.”

Two days earlier, an explosion at Al-Ahli Arab Hospital – an Anglican institution located a few blocks away – killed and injured hundreds, according to Palestinian health authorities. Hamas blamed the blast on an Israeli air raid, while Tel Aviv claimed it was caused by a malfunctioning rocket fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an armed group based in Gaza.

Despite Gaza City and adjacent refugee camps being surrounded by Israeli ground forces, and air raids pounding the area, Tarazi is refusing to leave. “We do not accept displacement from our country, our land and our churches,” she said.

“I will not leave the church except to the grave.”

Relatives attend the funeral of Palestinians who were killed in Israeli airstrikes that hit a church, in Gaza City
Relatives attend the funeral of Palestinians at the Greek Orthodox church [Abed Khaled/AP]

‘Threat of extinction’

At least 10,569 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza since October 7.

Only 800 to 1,000 Christians are believed to still live in Gaza, constituting the oldest Christian community in the world, dating back to the first century.

Mitri Raheb, an Evangelical Lutheran pastor and founder of Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, said it was conceivable that the current conflict would spell the end of its long history in this strip of land.

“This community is under threat of extinction,” Raheb told Al Jazeera. “I’m not sure if they will survive the Israeli bombing, and even if they survive, I think many of them will want to emigrate.”

“We know that within this generation, Christianity will cease to exist in Gaza,” he added.

The broader region of historic Palestine is the birthplace of Christianity, as well as the setting for many of the events in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

In the fourth century, Gaza, located along a major trade route with access to a vibrant port and a cosmopolitan city, became a major Christian mission hub. After 1948, when the state of Israel was established and 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes in what became known as the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, more Palestinian Christians joined the community on the coastal enclave.

Estimates have indicated that the number of Christians in Gaza dropped in recent years from the 3,000 registered in 2007, when Hamas assumed complete control of the strip, triggering Israel’s blockade and accelerating the departure of Christians from the poverty-stricken enclave.

Attacks in West Bank ‘quadrupled’

In the West Bank, Christians are on a stronger footing with more than 47,000 people living there, according to a 2017 census.

But violence and persecution have unsettled the community there too. “Attacks on clergy and churches had quadrupled this year compared to last year,” Raheb, whose academic institution documents such events, said.

On January 1, days after Israel swore in the most far-right government in the country’s history, two unidentified men broke into Jerusalem’s Protestant Mount Zion Cemetery and desecrated more than 30 graves, pushing over cross-shaped tombstones and smashing them with rocks.

On January 26, a mob of Israeli settlers attacked an Armenian bar in the Christian quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, shouting “Death to Arabs … Death to Christians.”

A couple of days later, Armenians leaving a memorial service in the Armenian Quarter were attacked by Israeli settlers carrying sticks. An Armenian was pepper-sprayed as settlers scaled the walls of the Armenian convent, trying to take down its flag, which had a cross on it.

The attacks have continued to escalate, in tandem with Israeli attempts to “silence any voices coming from Palestinians inside Israel”, Raheb said.

“They are Jewish terrorist settlers, but the international community doesn’t recognise them as such because it is part of the same colonial [mindset],” he said, adding that he worried the constant threat of violence would eventually drive out Christianity from the Holy Land.

‘My children were disfigured, dead’

Back in Gaza, Ramez al-Souri is trying to wrap his head around the deaths of his three children, Suhail, Majd and Julie, in the Church of Saint Porphyrius bombing.

“The building contained civilians who did not belong to them,” he said, referring to the Palestinian group Hamas, which launched the surprise attack in southern Israel on October 7 that led to Israel’s bombing.

Al-Souri had hoped his loved ones would be safe in a holy site, but not even the sanctity of its premises could shield his family from Israeli bombardment. The Israeli army is known to have also targeted UN schools sheltering displaced women and children, as well as hospitals, ambulances and aid supplies.

“My three children came out disfigured from the effects of the missile and shrapnel,” he said, still visibly in shock days later.

“I cannot believe that I will not talk and play with them again in my life.”

Source: Al Jazeera