By Al-Monitor –
Gaza’s minority Christian population has refused to leave Gaza City, despite the recent airstrike that targeted a historic church. About 1,000 Christians currently live in the Gaza Strip, down from 7,000 in 2007 when Hamas took control of the enclave. The majority of them are Orthodox .
Churches have become the latest victim of the indiscriminate Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip since Oct. 7, leaving no safe place for the besieged Gaza population.
Twenty Palestinians, including 18 Christians, were killed in an Israeli airstrike Oct. 19 on a building near the St. Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church in the south of Gaza City, according to the Hamas-run government media office in Gaza and other local sources.
The shelling brought down one of the buildings in the church’s complex where hundreds of displaced have been sheltered since Israel ordered more than 1 million people to move from Gaza’s northern part to the south ahead of its planned ground invasion.
Father Youssef Asaad of the Catholic Holy Family Church, located a few meters away from St. Porphyrius, told Al-Monitor that the Israeli missile fell between the church’s service provision building and a nearby abandoned building, which led to the collapse of the service provision building on the people hiding inside the church. He said 20 people were killed, including 18 Christians who were mostly from a single family, while they were sleeping.
Many other displaced suffered from severe and mild injuries, and other buildings in the church complex were cracked and damaged beyond repair, he lamented.
Asaad added that the Israeli missile left a massive hole in the church’s floor and surrounding area, which required moving the 400 displaced people sheltered inside to the Holy Family Church.
“Although they were relocated, the people are still not safe because of the ongoing airstrikes on Gaza that are targeting everything in their way,” Asaad warned.
Saint Porphyrius Church’s media officer Philip Jahshan, who was present at the church at the time of the attack, confirmed to Al-Monitor that the raid directly targeted the church’s service provision building, causing its full destruction.
The Israeli army said it struck a Hamas command center in the vicinity of the church. But eyewitnesses who spoke to Al-Monitor stressed that the building the Israeli army was referring to is abandoned and that no one was there at the time of the attack.
Ibrahim al-Suri, one of the survivors of the Israeli raid, told Al-Monitor, “The church was a direct target of the shelling, unlike what the Israeli army claimed. The building that the army claimed was targeted by the strike is deserted, and it has been a long time since anyone’s been there.”
“Unfortunately, everything in Gaza is being targeted. There is no safe place. Even places of worship and hospitals are in danger,” Suri said, calling on world countries to intervene and put an immediate end to the war that has killed over 7,300 Gazans in only three weeks.
On Oct. 20, the bodies of the Christians who died in the attack were laid out in the church courtyard for a mass funeral and were buried in a cemetery next to the church.
St. Porphyrius Church is said to be the third oldest church in the world and the oldest in Gaza, dating back to 425 AD. Adjoining buildings and rooms were added to the church complex over the years. The church also underwent a series of maintenance and restoration projects in the past years, most recently in 2020.
The church today includes several buildings, including the service provision building that was bombed. There are three entrances to the church, whose interior walls are decorated with religious inscriptions and icons.
According to historical narratives, the church was built with the support and funding of Byzantine Emperor Arcadius of Constantinople, to whom St. Porphyrius resorted to counter the attacks of the pagan residents of Gaza against the Christians. The church’s construction was completed five years after St. Porphyrius’ passing and was named after him.
There are three active churches in the Gaza Strip: Holy Family, St. Porphyrius and the Baptist church attached to al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, which was also bombed last week. Palestinians accuse Israel of targeting the hospital, while the Israeli army claims the deadly attack was caused by a rocket misfire from a Palestinian faction. Hundreds of people were killed and injured in that blast.