Christians worry they'll be wiped out of Gaza after mother, daughter shot dead at church

Palestinians search the destroyed annex of the Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church, the oldest church still in use in Gaza, damaged in a strike on Gaza City on October 20, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas.
Palestinians search the destroyed annex of the Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church, the oldest church still in use in Gaza, damaged in a strike on Gaza City on October 20, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. | Dawood Nemer/AFP via Getty Images

A church leader is worried that Gaza's Christian community will be wiped out in Israel's war with Hamas after Israeli soldiers were accused of fatally shooting two Christian women on the grounds of Gaza City's only Catholic church on Saturday.

"I believe the Christian community will not survive this atrocity," Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Lutheran leader based in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus was born, told NBC News. "Even those who will survive, who might survive, I'm not sure that they can live in Gaza in a place where life is unlivable."  

In a statement Saturday, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem claimed that a "sniper of the IDF murdered two Christian women inside the Holy Family Parish in Gaza, where the majority of Christian families have taken refuge since the start of the war."

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The women were identified as Nahida and her daughter Samar. The patriarchate stated that they were "shot in cold blood inside the premises of the Parish, where there are no belligerents." Seven others were wounded by gunfire.

The patriarchate noted that another church building, the Convent of the Sisters of Mother Theresa (Missionaries of Charity), was struck by "a rocket from an IDF tank" even though it is signaled as a place of worship. The church is home to 54 disabled persons.

"The building's generator (the only source of electricity) and the fuel resources were destroyed. The house was damaged by the resulting explosion and massive fire," the patriarchate said. "Two more rockets, fired by an IDF tank, targeted the same Convent and rendered the home uninhabitable. The 54 disabled persons are currently displaced and without access to the respirators that some of them need to survive."

An estimated 1,000 Christians lived in Gaza before the war began on Oct. 7, spurred by the Hamas terror group's surprise attack in southern Israel that killed over 1,200 people, mostly civilians. Israel launched retaliatory airstrikes and a ground offensive in hopes of eradicating Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007, and securing the release of over 240 hostages.

Since the war began, the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry says over 19,000 people have been killed. 

The majority of Christians in Gaza are Greek Orthodox, while others identify as Roman Catholic, Baptist and other denominations, a 2014 survey by the YMCA shows. Most of the Christian community in Gaza has sought shelter in the St. Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church and the Catholic Holy Family Church.

Amid claims that IDF soldiers were responsible for the death of the two Israeli women, the office of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said "an IDF investigation" found "this claim is not true." Netanyahu's office said there was a conflict in the vicinity of a different church that day.

In a statement shared with media, the IDF said that it had been contacted on Saturday about an incident in the Holy Family Parish but stated that "no reports of a hit on the church, nor civilians being injured or killed, were raised."

"A review of the IDF's operational findings support this," the IDF statement reads, according to All Isreal News. "The IDF takes claims regarding harm to sensitive sites with the utmost seriousness — especially churches — considering that Christian communities are a minority group in the Middle East."

"The IDF only targets terrorists and terror infrastructure and does not target civilians, no matter their religion … (and) takes vast measures to avoid harm to uninvolved civilians," the statement concluded. 

Raheb, who frequently communicates with the Gaza church community, said Israel's denial is "heartbreaking."

"But, also, you know ... it makes people very angry," Raheb told NBC News.

The Rev. Munther Isaac, pastor of the Christmas Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, told NBC News that he did not accept the denials from Israeli officials.

"They can say whatever they want," Isaac said. "The fact remains that two women, two harmless women, were shot dead in front of the church with many eyewitnesses."

"If Israel, you know, shot their own hostages who were raising white flags, then why should we be surprised?" he added, pointing to the IDF's announcement that it had mistakenly killed three Israeli hostages. "The Israelis are willing to shoot any moving target, even if that target was carrying white flags."

Earlier this month, the Holy Family Church was damaged by Israeli army strikes targeting nearby buildings. In November, an airstrike reportedly destroyed the Rosary Sisters School, which served 1,250 Christian and Muslim students, according to the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. An ACN project partner in Gaza said that at least 53 Christian families' homes have been destroyed.

In October, an Israeli airstrike struck the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrios, killing at least 18 people. At the time, IDF confirmed that a portion of the church was damaged in a strike targeting Hamas military compounds and said the church itself was not the intended target.

Contact: Follow Leonardo Blair on Twitter: @leoblair Follow Leonardo Blair on Facebook: LeoBlairChristianPost

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