Published19 hours ago
During the past month of brutal fighting, every day Pope Francis has been calling the priest and parishioners crammed into Gaza City’s Holy Family Church to check on them.
He offers prayers and his full sympathy.
For George Anton, who is sheltering in the church compound with his wife and three daughters, the contact brings comfort but little hope of protection.
“We trust Pope Francis, but we don’t trust others to listen to the voice of peace,” he says despairingly. “I don’t know how to describe the feeling. It’s a very scary thing. You feel you sit waiting for your turn to die. You don’t know when and you don’t know how or why.”
George, who works for the Roman Catholic charity Caritas, tells me he has had to have tough conversations with his daughters aged just eight, 10 and 12.
“I am telling them the whole truth. I say we are with Jesus, but I also tell them that they are in a war,” he explains. “Sometimes, I leave them to go to get bread, to bring medicine or clothes, and every time I go, I say, ‘Goodbye. If I return back, all’s ok. If not, guys, that’s it.'”
He says that there is no keeping his girls from the horror of death and destruction.
“This is what they hear from 600 people around them in the church, watching videos on the internet. This is what they see from the bombardment all around. They do not sleep at night because they’re terrified. The sound of the rockets is like Hell.”
When Israeli forces ordered more than a million residents to move from the northern part of the Gaza Strip to the south, hundreds of thousands did not heed the instruction.
Many from the small Christian community, which numbers about 1,000, instead took their families to stay in their churches, thinking they would be safe there, as they have been in previous rounds of fighting between Israel and Palestinian armed factions.
After a deadly Israeli air strike hit an outbuilding of the Greek Orthodox Church of St Porphyrius – the site of one of the world’s oldest churches – all sense of security was lost.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem described the attack as a “war crime”. Israel’s military said its target had been a nearby Hamas command centre used to launch rockets.
Amid scenes of despair, the bodies of those crushed to death were laid out wrapped in white sheets in the church courtyard for a mass funeral on 20 October. Eighteen Christian women, men and children were killed.
In the occupied West Bank, churches have held special prayers to show solidarity with everyone suffering in Gaza and remember the dead. Many Gazan Christians have relatives here, although Israel’s permit system has made it hard for them to meet up in recent years.
At a church in Beit Sahour, Shireen Awwad lights a candle for her aunt who was killed in St Porphyrius.
“I’m really heartbroken. We cannot think, we’re paralysed,” she says.
Shireen still has cousins and uncles in Gaza City as well as another aunt, who was injured in the church blast and then endured hip replacement surgery without anaesthesia at Shifa Hospital because of the shortage of medical supplies.
She says her relatives are proud natives of Gaza who have stayed there through successive wars.
“Every time we asked them: ‘do you want to leave?’ They would say, ‘no, these are our roots. This is where we were born’,” Shireen says. “But this time, for the first time, they don’t know if they want to stay, that is if they actually survive.”
The Christian population of the small coastal strip has a long history. St Porphyrius was a fifth century bishop of Gaza whose tomb lies under the church.
Many Christians have moved away, particularly since 2007, when Hamas took full control of Gaza. Israel, like many other countries, designates the Islamist movement as a terrorist group. Along with Egypt, it imposed a crippling blockade on Gaza after the takeover.
Reverend Dr Munther Isaac, a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem, says that following events in Gaza has left him feeling “shell-shocked and broken”.
He also fears for the future of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
“In the first council of Churches, there were representatives of the Church in Gaza,” he says. “We’re concerned about every human life but after all is done, one of our biggest concerns is that this long, long tradition of Christian presence in Gaza might come to an end.”
While Pope Francis has called for a ceasefire, Palestinian Christians express disappointment in the public comments of other Church leaders concerning the war, particularly the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who is head of the Church of England and spiritual leader of the 85 million-strong Anglican Communion.
Anglicans in the West Bank accused him of prioritising “domestic British ecumenical and political considerations” over recognition of Palestinian rights.
In Gaza City, where Israeli shelling last week left the Greek Orthodox Cultural Centre in ruins, George Anton is watching with growing despair.
“We are innocent people. We have no involvement in politics or military activity whatsoever. We are civilians. Why should we be a target? For what?” he asks.
“We have lost many friends. Some evacuated to [the southern city of] Khan Younis to stay with their relatives and they were all killed. They were hit by a rocket and all the buildings were demolished on their heads. They’re all dead, but we have no time to feel sad.
“Every day you hear this person was killed, this family, this home was destroyed, this institution was wiped out. We cannot carry all this.”
In the end, he pledges to stay in the church with his family.
“We have had so many calls to evacuate, but we will not leave,” he tells me. “This is where we belong. This is our home.”