Holy Family Church in Gaza, May 2022.
Photo by Churches for Middle East Peace
The Christians of Gaza
December 12, 2023
The video showed a small congregation offering their prayers on a Sunday in October 2023. The church was full of worshipers. They were praying, “Holy Mary, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Then a bomb struck nearby. The shrill whistle of the falling bomb lasted only a blink of an eye before giving way to an earth-shaking explosion. The blast racked the church and the Christians inside. Some stood in shock, others were glued to the pews. Some ran to the door to peer outside. This service at the only Catholic church in Gaza was over as the people scrambled to check on homes and loved ones, carrying their unfinished prayers in their hearts.
There are slightly more than 50,000 Palestinian Christians in the occupied territories, but fewer than 1,000 of them live in Gaza. These Gazan Christians are trying to survive in the crossfire between Israel and Hamas today, as attested by that bomb and the over 25,000 tons of explosives dropped on Gaza in the first month after October 7. Many of these bombs have fallen on or near institutions owned and operated by Christians, near churches, and in residential areas where Christians live. Yet, these Christians are seeking to help their neighbors despite the dangers.
The Christian community tends to be well-educated and active in their communities. They are involved in institutions like schools, churches, and hospitals, including many of the places of last resort where Gazans are taking refuge in the hopes that Israel will spare these places from the bombardment. Sometimes referred to as “living stones,” Palestinian Christians seek to be an active testimony to the Good News of Jesus in the Holy Land.
Most Gazan Christians are Greek Orthodox, but a few hundred worship at the Holy Family Catholic Church, where that bomb interrupted mass, or the Gaza Baptist Church. Christians have been in Gaza since the earliest days of the church. The book of Acts relates the story that Philip the Apostle evangelized an Ethiopian eunuch from the royal court on the road that ran through Gaza. Founded in the 5th century, St. Porphyrios Church in Gaza City is the oldest church in Gaza and one of the oldest churches in the world.
The Christian community in Gaza is of a piece with the Christian community in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as Palestinian Christian citizens of Israel. Many family networks are spread out across these places; thus, the stories coming out of the West Bank and Israel about people who are worried for their family members in Gaza.
The Christian population in the Palestinian territories is shrinking both in absolute terms–there were 3,000 Christians in Gaza as recently as 2007–and as a proportion of the larger population. A birth rate that is lower among Christians than other groups contributes to this shift. Christians have also been able to emigrate at higher rates to escape the dire conditions under the Israeli occupation and blockade that has existed around Gaza since 2007. Although many have left, many others remain determined to hold onto their homes and their land, a commitment being severely tested by the present attacks on Gaza.
The voice of Palestinian Christians frequently speaks clearly in response to violence and injustice. The present war is no exception. Whether the church around the world listens or not is another question.
Christians in the enclave have experienced countless tragedies during this war, including the bombings of churches and the deaths of Christians. The Al Ahli Hospital, an Anglican institution, was bombed on October 14 and again a few days later when hundreds of people were killed while taking refuge in the parking lot. The first bombing was attributed to Israel, and the second caused global consternation when a great debate surfaced about whether or not the attack was a result of an Israeli missile or an errant militant projectile. The consequences were so severe that Arab leaders like President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, King Abdullah of Jordan, and President El-Sisi of Egypt did not meet with U.S. President Biden during his travels to the region to protest U.S. support for the militarization of Israel as it continued its bombing campaign on Gaza.
In addition to the damage, deaths, and injuries surrounding the Al Ahli Hospital, Christian infrastructure has been gravely affected over the past several weeks. A new multimillion dollar Greek Orthodox Cultural Center was destroyed in a bomb blast. Dar Al Kalima University, the Bethlehem-based arts institution with Christian founders, has a center in Gaza. For more than 10 days, leaders in Bethlehem could not get in touch with their director, whom they feared to be dead. Finally, they received a phone call and were relieved to hear she had relocated south as a part of the great migration in response to Netanyahu’s demand that 1.4 million Palestinians in northern Gaza move southward or otherwise be considered combatants. However, several of the staff, student artists, and volunteers have been killed.
On Thursday, October 19, Israeli bombs struck St. Porphyrius Church, mentioned above as the oldest church in Gaza. The church was sheltering dozens of Christians and Muslim neighbors–18 of these refugees died in the blast, and two buildings were destroyed. Israelis had been given coordinates of all of the Christian holy sites and ministry locations, including churches, schools, and hospitals, early on after the war began on October 8. However, Israel claims to have identified a residence located next to the church as belonging to a suspected Hamas militant.
Christians in Gaza are responding to the hell that has engulfed them by having mass baptisms to ensure their children have been dedicated to Christ in case they are to die in the middle of the night in a bombing campaign.
The voice of Palestinian Christians frequently speaks clearly in response to violence and injustice. The present war is no exception. Palestinian Christians issued a statement to their coreligionists in the West, calling for repentance and solidarity. Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac, a Palestinian Lutheran pastor, preached that “God is Under the Rubble” at the Christmas Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. The Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem joined with Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to condemn the bombing of St. Porphyrius as a war crime and to call for immediate de-escalation of violence and protection of civilians.
The Palestinian Christians are speaking clearly. Whether the church around the world listens or not is another question. In the meantime, as Churches for Middle East Peace expressed in a recent statement: “Israel’s continued ground invasion of Gaza and relentless bombing campaign has indiscriminate effects and threatens to completely eradicate the Christian community in Gaza.” The very existence of the Church in the land of its origins is under serious threat, today more than ever.
Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon is the executive director, Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), Washington, D.C. Dr. Benjamin Norquist is an Ambassador Warren Clark Fellow at CMEP. He is a researcher and public organizer with a Ph.D. in higher education from Azusa Pacific University.