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War on Gaza: Christian community fears extinction as ‘genocidal campaign’ continues

Palestinian Christians say there are only 800 of them left in Gaza due to Israel’s intensive bombing campaign which has killed more than 19,000 since 7 October
Palestinians mourn relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip outside a morgue in Khan Younis on 20 December 2023 (AP)
Palestinians mourn relatives killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip outside a morgue in Khan Younis on 20 December 2023 (AP)

Palestinian Christians are concerned their community is facing the threat of extermination in Gaza as Israel has bombarded the enclave continously since the start of the war on 7 October. 

The Israeli military has killed almost 19,000 Palestinians, mostly children and women, over the past three months of ferocious air strikes and ground operations. 

In the process, residential towers, places of worship and schools have been razed by air strikes while Israel has also cut off all fuel, water, food and electricity supplies for the besieged strip since 9 October. 

The war on Gaza started after the Hamas-led attack on Israel on 7 October resulted in the deaths of more than 1,200 people. 

As attacks intensify on churches in Gaza, where many Christians are sheltering, the community have expressed fears over their future existence.

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“We’re one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, and we face the threat of extinction,” Hammam Farah, a Palestinian Christian living in Canada, who has lost several relatives in the current bombing campaign, told Middle East Eye.

According to Farah, before the Israeli siege and blockade in Gaza started in 2007, there were around 3,000 Christians. The number dwindled to around 1,000 as people left due to the inhumane conditions as a result of the blockade and stayed steady over the years.

However, since 7 October, the number has dropped to 800, with more feared dead as the death toll rises every day.

Christians have been seeking refuge in churches throughout the constant bombardment, including in the historic St Porphyrius church which was bombed on 19 October. 

Farah says he has lost many family members in Israel’s current "genocidal campaign" which has forced Christians to evacuate their homes and head to churches. 

“The ceiling collapsed [in the St Porphyrius church], killing 18 people including my cousin, Soliman. He was 35 years old. His wife sustained serious injuries and has a broken back, broken hip, and broken jaw. They have two little boys who witnessed their father perishing beneath the rubble,” he said. 

gaza man house
Palestinians check the rubble after Israeli bombardment in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on 21 December 2023 (AFP)

Farah’s great aunt, the renowned music teacher Elham Farah, 84, was also killed on 12 November after being shot by an Israeli soldier as she tried to leave the church to check up on her home.

“Just a few days ago, our family friends, Nahida Anton and Samar Anton, mother and daughter, left the Holy Family’s church hall to walk to the Sisters of Mother Teresa convent to use the only bathroom in the compound and were shot and killed by Israeli snipers,” Farah said.

On 16 and 17 December, Israeli tanks surrounded the Holy Family’s church and snipers took up position around it. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was also bombed on 16 December, wounding dozens according to the Euro-Med monitor. 

Farah says the constant attacks on churches have left him “extremely worried and anxious”, particularly as tanks fired on the convent where 54 people with disabilities were sheltering.

“I heard the convent was destroyed and the people there are now without the respirators they need to survive. The army also damaged the water tanks and the generator,” he explained, adding that his family have had to ration their food and water.

‘Eliminating us one by one’

Ryan al-Natour, a Palestinian Christian from Australia, said the current attacks are “designed to erase all Palestinians from the Gaza Strip”, and this will have a “dire impact” on the Christian community there. 

“The racist, apartheid state claims to the world that it has a ‘moral’ army and is supposedly the ‘saviour’ of Christians in Gaza whilst it is eliminating us one by one. Christians across Gaza are seeing the false narrative that Israel tells the world whilst they are starved and bombed by a genocidal army,” he told MEE. 

Earlier this month, it was announced that there would be no Christmas lights in Bethlehem, festive parades in Jerusalem, or celebrations in Jordan due to Israel’s bombing of Gaza. Many diaspora Palestinians also took the decision to refrain from celebrating this year, feeling it was inappropriate.

'The racist, apartheid state claims to the world that it has a ‘moral’ army and is supposedly the ‘saviour’ of Christians in Gaza whilst it is eliminating us one by one'

- Ryan al-Natour, a Palestinian Christian 

Christian Palestinians have also raised alarm over Israeli officials’ and politicians’ comments over their existence in Gaza.

This week, an Israeli politician claimed there “are no Christians in Gaza”, which caused great anger.

Al-Natour says that while the comments are an example of “gaslighting”, and are “pathetic and racist”, they come as no surprise.

“Since 1948, Israel has tried to divide Palestinians on the basis of our religious diversity, as a method typical in settler colonial projects that aim to divide and conquer indigenous populations,” he said.

“Our whole lives, we Christian Palestinians have been told by Zionists that we either ‘don’t exist’ or that our Muslim siblings are a ‘threat’ to us whilst Zionists restrict our movement, steal our lands, imprison and torture us,” he added.

The fear of Palestinians being exterminated from Gaza has affected many, al-Natour says.

“No one I know in the Palestinian diaspora is living life as normal these days. Christmas is cancelled, we barely sleep, we feel guilty for eating food or drinking water, how on earth are we expected to recover from this?” he says. 

‘Churches will cease to exist’

Sally Dabeet-Asfour, a diaspora Palestinian Christian, who has family in Gaza, says that all Christians are currently spread across two churches in Gaza, trying to stay out of Israeli fire. 

“We definitely are worried about the ethnic cleansing of Christians in Gaza, they are the keepers of the church and without them our churches will cease to exist,” she told MEE.

For Christians in Gaza, they are in the church not just to shelter from bombing, says Dabeet-Asfour, but also to protect it.

She says that Christians’ historical presence in Gaza is significant, and now the threat of them and their places of worship being eliminated feels very real. 

“Christians in Palestine date back to the time of Christ and his disciples. They are the people that saw Christ and believed in him. They are the reason why Christianity was spread to the world,” she said.

“Today they are the minority groups inside of Palestine, without our presence our churches will no longer exist.”

Birthplace of Christianity

Palestinian Christians have a special attachment to their land, considering the region is the birthplace of their faith and the location of many of the events of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

Gaza, in particular, is home to many significant sites in Christianity.

The region is referred to by name in the New Testament in Acts 8, which refers to Philip the Evangelist baptising a man from Ethiopia on the road between Jerusalem and Gaza.

The Saint Porphyrius Church is one of the most important religious sites in Palestine, and was named after a fifth-century bishop. The site is one of the oldest surviving places of worship in the region and one of the oldest churches in the world.

Israel-Palestine war: A quick history of Christianity in Gaza
Read More »

Another major Christian site in Gaza is the nearby and even older Tell Umm Amer monastery. The fourth-century structure, which now lies mainly in ruins, once included churches, a baptism hall, a cemetery and crypt.

Gaza’s mass conversion to Christianity started in the fifth century under the auspices of the Byzantine Empire, the successor to the Eastern Roman Empire.

While Christianity was widely adopted by the end of the sixth century, it was not long before there was a new dominant religion.

However, the Israeli occupation has continued to have a devastating affect on the community.

Not only are they cut off from the larger Christian communities in the occupied West Bank and in Jerusalem, they have also seen their land and resources destroyed. 

“Just like our Muslim siblings, Palestinian Christians deserve to be all over Palestine, as we come from land in between the [Jordan] river to the sea,” al-Natour said. 

“We were the first Christians and now a group of people from all over the world claiming to be ‘indigenous’ are desecrating the Holy Land. It is my understanding that actual indigenous people look after the lands they come from, not drop weapons of mass destruction all over it.” 

Shared history under occupation 

Despite Israeli claims that Muslims have been persecuting Christians in Gaza for decades, many describe a peaceful co-existence, saying that any such claims are an attempt to cause divisions.

“When my cousin's husband was killed by a group of individuals because he was Christian, the people that were first by my cousin's side were the Muslims… the notion that we were driven out is true, but not just us, but also the Muslims,” says Dabeet-Asfour.

'There’s no distinction between the way we’ve been treated by Israel. In the West Bank, the illegal settlers spit on our nuns and the soldiers detain our priests'

- Hammam Farah, Palestinian Christian

According to her, many are forced to leave Gaza due to the occupation but, because Christians are a minority, the depletion is spotted more easily. 

“To say that there are no churches in Gaza is simply Israel trying to put out its normal propaganda to cover itself for the killing of the two ladies inside the church,” she said, referring to the Israeli army shooting dead two women on 17 December.

Al-Natour agrees, saying that before the Nakba of 1948, when more than 700,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes by Zionist militias, Christians got on well with Muslims and Jews. 

“Zionism destroyed our ability to live in the Holy Land. The majority of us [Christians] left after 1948, which is when the Zionist project ethnically cleansed us, so in a way, the Zionists are right that before October 7th, Christians were being driven out but it wasn’t by Muslims, it was by Zionists who are dedicated to our erasure,” he explained. 

Farah says Christians have a shared history with Palestinian Muslims.

“There’s no distinction between the way we’ve been treated by Israel. In the West Bank, the illegal settlers spit on our nuns and the soldiers detain our priests,” he said.

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