Gaza’s Christians fear for survival amid Israel-Hamas war

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.

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