Who are the Catholics of Gaza, besieged in the Holy Family Church?

Who are the Catholics of Gaza, besieged in the Holy Family Church?
Almost all of Gaza's Catholic population is besieged in a church, where Israel killed a mother and daughter last weekend.
5 min read
19 December, 2023
The Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza has been sheltering 650 Christian Palestinians. [Getty]

Last Saturday, Nahida and Samar, a Palestinian Christian mother and daughter, were killed by an Israeli sniper as they attempted to reach the bathroom in the annexe of Catholic church in Gaza that they were sheltering in.

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem confirmed the killings at the Holy Family Catholic Church, with Pope Francis also condemning Israel’s acts of "terrorism".

The attacks highlighted the latest assault on the enclave's small but significant Christian community, where civilians have sheltered in churches as their homes are destroyed by Israeli bombings.

It is estimated that 2.5 percent of Gaza's pre-war Christian population has been killed in 74 days of Israeli bombing 0f Gaza.

What is the Holy Family Catholic Church?

The Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza has been a place of refuge for around 650 Christian Palestinians since the start of the assault on Gaza on 7 October, mostly Orthodox, but also 135 Catholics - almost all the denomination's population in Gaza - and a smaller number of Protestants.

Besieged by Israeli tanks, the church residents are living in extreme conditions and are given just two hours a day to access the only building with bathrooms before Israeli snipers open fire on the sheltering civilians.

Describing the current situation in the Holy Family Catholic Church, The Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem’s media office told The New Arab: "They [Christians sheltering in the church] are part of the war, they all live inside the compound of the church, they can't go out of it. No food, electricity, or water. We are trying to help but it's not easy.

"Some are injured inside too; they are not allowed to have any doctors see them."

Two of the seven people injured inside the church urgently need surgery and due to the Israeli siege have not been transferred to hospital, despite mediation attempts by the Red Cross and the Jordanian delegation, the chief of the Latin Patriarchate Sami El Yousef told The New Arab.

El Yousef said there is no gas or electricity to charge phones, and therefore communications inside the church are effectively down.

They do know that the situation inside the church is "miserable".

Another 200 Palestinian Christians are still taking refuge in The Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius, in similar brutal conditions to those in the Catholic church, which has been targeted by Israeli strikes.

Has Israel targeted the church?

Around noon on Saturday, the mother and daughter sheltering in the Holy Family Church were shot dead as they attempted to reach the bathroom in a separate annexe.

Despite overwhelming proof, Israel's military denied the killings: "No reports of a hit on the church or civilian casualties were raised during IDF-community dialogue.”

Israel's denial has been widely discredited and the Israeli military appeared to be speaking about a separate church in another location of Gaza City.

UK PM Layla Moran, who has family members, including her cousin's two young twin children, trapped inside the besieged church, spoke out against the situation. "My family are not collateral damage. We need an immediate bilateral ceasefire now," Moran told the BBC.

Who are the Christians of Gaza?

Christian families in Gaza have been sheltering in churches since Israel's deadly war started on 7 October.

The Christian population has dropped dramatically from 7,000, just 15 years ago, to around 1,000 now, the mass exodus caused by Israel's brutal blockade of Gaza, which has been going on since 2007.

"Any family or individual who gets the chance to leave Gaza, they will do like others did in the past,” the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem said.

"Some moved to the West Bank or got married, and they don't have permission to travel. Those who had another nationality or even a visa moved out."

What has happened to other churches during the war?

On 20 October, an Israeli strike on the compound of the Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius killed at least 18 Palestinian civilians sheltering inside it, wounding dozens more.

Before the bombing in October, churches were perceived as safe shelters for the community.

Currently, all three Christian places of worship in Gaza have been attacked by Israel.

The Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius was partially damaged by Israeli airstrikes on 20 October, where around 200 Christians are residing

The Holy Family Catholic Parish on Zeitoun Street, which follows the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, is hosting around 650 displaced people, according to the patriarchate’s estimate.

There is also an Anglican chapel within the premises of the Al-Ahli Al-Arabi Arab Evangelical Hospital, which was bombed during the 2023 war, resulting in almost 500 people killed. The hospital and its buildings are reportedly inaccessible to civilians at the moment.

The Christian community in Gaza predominantly resides within Gaza City, particularly in areas adjacent to the three primary churches.

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What’s Next?

El Yousef described the general situation of Gaza's Christians as "extremely painful."

He said the community had lost 2.5 percent of its population in the war - higher than the percentage of the UK population killed in the Second World War.

El Youssef described the ongoing plight of Christians in Gaza, who continue to face killings, displacement, and forced exodus, leading to a steady decline in their population over the years.

Around 19,600 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in Gaza since 7 October, with more than 52,000 wounded.