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For Palestinian Christians, a Sunday spent mourning civilians killed at a Gaza church

A woman covers her face at a special prayer service for the victims of an airstrike at a Gaza church, held Sunday at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
A woman covers her face at a special prayer service for the victims of an airstrike at a Gaza church, held Sunday at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem.

JERUSALEM β€” Across the Holy Land on Sunday, Christian churches dedicated services to the victims of an Israeli airstrike that killed more than a dozen people sheltering at a Greek Orthodox church in Gaza.

In recent years, the Church of St. Porphyrius in Gaza City had come to serve as a shelter in times of conflict between Israel and militants in Gaza, including Hamas, the group that earlier this month unleashed the deadliest attack on Israeli civilians in the country's history.

Over the past two weeks, as Israeli airstrikes have hammered Gaza in retaliation, hundreds of Palestinians sought safety at the church β€” most of them members of a small but prominent Palestinian Christian minority.

On Thursday, an Israeli airstrike damaged part of the church compound. Palestinian officials say 18 people were killed in the strike. All but one were Christian, those affiliated with the church said, a total that amounted to nearly two percent of Gaza's Christian population.

In a statement Friday, the Israel Defense Forces said their target was a building near the church that they said was being used by Hamas as a command center to launch rockets at Israel. The church sanctuary itself was not struck.

"The IDF can unequivocally state that the Church was not the target of the strike," the statement said.

"I don't think that is an excuse to hit these places near a church where people are hiding," said Rev. Fadi Diab, an Anglican minister based in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Palestinians search the destroyed annex of the Church of St. Porphyrius after an airstrike on Oct. 20.
Dawood Nemer / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Palestinians search the destroyed annex of the Church of St. Porphyrius after an airstrike on Oct. 20.

The deadly Oct. 20 airstrike

At least 400 people were taking shelter at the church complex on Thursday, Oct. 20, witnesses said. The church grounds include its historic sanctuary, which dates to the 12th century, along with several other buildings and a courtyard.

About a quarter of those at the complex were inside an office building near the church sanctuary, said Kamel Ayyad, a churchgoer who lives nearby.

That night, Ayyad was at home with his young daughters when he heard a first strike, then a second, he said. "We never expected that the church would get bombed," he said.

Soon after the building was hit, churchgoers and other Palestinians rushed to the heap of concrete slabs and debris in an attempt to rescue those trapped in the rubble.

"It was very painful to hear 'my mother is inside,' 'my son is inside,' 'my sister is inside,' " said Elias al-Jeldah, a Palestinian Christian who arrived on the scene shortly after the airstrike. "People were frantic. People were so scared."

Among the dead were several relatives of former U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, whose father is Palestinian. "The Palestinian Christian community has endured so much. Our family is hurting badly," he wrote on the social media site X.

In spite of Thursday's strike, hundreds of people have continued to shelter at the St. Porphyrius Church in the days since.

Palestinian Christians who chose to remain at the Orthodox church and the nearby Catholic church said they felt they had nowhere else to go, even as Israel has urged people to evacuate from Gaza City to the southern half of the territory.

The church "seems to be the only place that can take us," said Ayyad. "We Christians have no one in the south."

Churches across the region memorialize the victims

Among the churches holding services to memorialize those killed in Gaza was one of the most sacred sites in Christianity: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site in Jerusalem's Old City that is said to be where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

There, on Sunday, steps away from the elaborate marble shrine that surrounds what many believe to be Jesus' tomb, the patriarch of Jerusalem and All Palestine β€” the branch of Orthodoxy to which the St. Porphyrius Church belongs β€” held a prayer service for the victims.

"The survivors of this horrific bombing are resilient and filled with the spirit of Christ," Theophilos III said in a statement. "Together with them we continue to display faith through the aftermath of this horrific ordeal."

A woman kneels in what is thought to be Jesus' tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Sunday.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A woman kneels in what is thought to be Jesus' tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Sunday.

At another church near Bethlehem, hours after the Sunday service had to come to an end, one family was still grieving.

Basheer, who asked NPR to use only his first name out of concern for his family's safety, said his wife's sister was one of those who had sheltered at the Gaza church.

But she was killed, along with her 6-month-old grandchild, according to Basheer and another witness of the strike's aftermath.

By sheltering at the church, she thought she was escaping death, Basheer said, but it found her anyway. "Maybe she chose the right place to be, as a Christian, a believer, beside Jesus Christ," he added.

Every Palestinian, be them Christian or Muslim, feels the same way these days, he said β€” hopeless. "This is our way of living," he said. "It's all tragedies, all sadness."

Nuha Musleh contributed reporting in Jerusalem. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

On Sunday, a special prayer for peace in the ongoing conflict was held at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
On Sunday, a special prayer for peace in the ongoing conflict was held at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
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