Under Israeli attack: Who are Gaza's Christians?

2023-11-01 20:08:21Histori SHKRUAR NGA REDAKSIA VOX
Who are the Christians of Gaza?

Lorraine Mallinder – Al Jazeera

In one of the key moments of Israel's war in Gaza so far, is the deadly explosion at the baptist al-Ahli hospital on October 17, where nearly 500 people were killed.

Two days later, Israel bombed the Church of St. Porphyry, the oldest in the Gaza Strip, killing at least 18 people.

The deadly attacks on a hospital, an Anglican institution and a church have put the spotlight on the enclave's Christian minority, which, like the rest of the Gaza Strip, is under relentless Israeli bombardment.

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

The Christian community was shocked, but most did not flee the besieged city, which claims a rich Christian heritage dating back two millennia.

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

The number of Christians in Gaza has decreased in recent years. Today, only about 1,000 remain, a sharp drop from the 3,000 recorded in 2007, when Hamas took full control of the enclave.

According to Kamel Ayyad, a spokesman for the Church of Saint Porphyry, most of the population is from Gaza itself. The rest fled there after the creation of the state of Israel, which displaced some 700,000 Palestinians, an event they call the Nakba, or "catastrophe."

After Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, Israel imposed a land, air and sea blockade, hastening the exodus of Christians from the poverty-stricken enclave. "It has become very difficult for people to live here," says Ayyad. "Many Christians have gone to the West Bank, America, Canada or the Arab world, seeking better education and health care."

While most Christians in Gaza belong to the Greek Orthodox faith, a smaller number pray at the Holy Family Catholic Church and the Gaza Baptist Church. The former recently released a video of parishioners praying as bombs rang out in the background.

The Christian community in Gaza is fluid, with many families made up of members of different faiths. Fadi Salfiti, whose family fled from Nablus to Gaza in 1948, attended all the churches.

"On Sunday morning we went to the Orthodox church, in the afternoon to the Catholic church and in the evening to the Protestant church," he said.

Salfiti attended a youth conference in Madrid when Israel launched its ground offensive in 2008. He remains in Spain to this day, where he now teaches management. Three of his cousin's children were killed in the attack on Saint Porfiri: Majd, 10, Juli, 12, and Suhail, 14.

How long have Christians lived in Gaza?

Gaza's Christian heritage goes back to the days when believers were treated as a sect that promised salvation to the downtrodden.

According to the Bible, after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the apostle Philip took the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza to spread the holy word.

The Church of Saint Porphyry is the oldest in the enclave. It was originally founded in the 5th century after the death of the bishop of the same name, who converted the city's pagans to Christianity, burning idols and temples. After the Persian invasion in the 7th century, the church was converted into a mosque. Later, the Crusaders rebuilt it in the 12th century.

Palestinian Christians, who number a total of 50,000 in the occupied territories, are sometimes called "living stones," a metaphor first used by the apostle Peter, a former fisherman called to be a disciple of Jesus, to describe the role of believers in building the spiritual house of God. Today, the term indicates their special status as guardians of the faith born in their land.

What are the relations between Christians and Muslims in Gaza?

Living under siege, Christians in Gaza reaffirm the 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 we are all the same," said Ayyad.

In general, the Christian community has always played an important role in Palestinian life, producing famous people such as Issa El-Issa, founder of the highly influential Jaffa-Palestine newspaper, a prime mover of Palestinian-Arab nationalism during the British Mandate , as well as Eduard Said, who wrote the famous work "Orientalism".

In Gaza, too, members of the small community play a major role.

"They are usually very educated, with a strong presence in the business and NGO sector", says Salfiti.

For example, the YMCA, which provides sports, arts, education and social activities for Palestinians in Gaza of all faiths, is run by Christians. Al-Ahli Hospital, destroyed in last month's Israeli airstrike that killed hundreds of people, is owned and run by Anglicans.

Cut off from the world under an Israeli-led blockade, the community sometimes felt vulnerable. In 2007, they were shocked by the killing of Rami Ayyad, manager of the Teacher's Bookshop, a Baptist shop on the street that had also been bombed a few months earlier. No group claimed responsibility for the killing, which Hamas condemned, saying it "will not allow anyone to sabotage" Muslim-Christian relations.

But the killers were never brought to justice.

In general, communities are united in their resistance to collective captivity in what has been called the world's largest open-air prison.

Just as Muslims were denied permission to visit Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, Christians were also unable to visit sites such as the Church of Bethlehem of the East, which is revered as the birthplace of Jesus. Both communities have been cut off from family members in the West Bank.

What is the current situation for Christians in Gaza?

Under the recent Israeli bombardment, Christians and Muslims sought refuge in Saint Porfir.

After the attack, everyone moved to the nearby Church of the Holy Family, 400 meters away. Now there are about 560 people there, according to Nisreen Anton, the main leader of the church.

Parish priest Gabriel Romanelli has stayed in Bethlehem since the beginning of the war and remains in contact with his believers. In a recorded message on October 24, he called for an end to the bombing and the opening of a humanitarian corridor.

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

Like many Palestinians in Gaza, Anton is determined to stay. He stays at the church with her three daughters, aged eight, nine and 12, and says the situation is getting worse every day.

"Christians are suffering like every other people of Gaza," he said. "This is our country and we will not leave. We will stay.”