This Easter, Gaza's Christian community is on the brink of extinction

This Easter, Gaza's Christian community is on the brink of extinction
Israel's war threatens the world's oldest Christian community. But Western powers who pay lip service to religious minorities are silent, writes Khalil Sayegh.
7 min read
28 Mar, 2024
Gaza's Christian community has survived for over two millennia, with just 800 remaining today. [Getty]

For the first time in its history, Gaza’s Christian community is under threat of extinction.

Gaza is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, dating back to the first century, and the third oldest church in the world. Despite constant threats to survival, the community has persisted for two millennia.

But now, extinction may be unavoidable this time due to Israel’s indiscriminate war and imposed famine, which has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians in Gaza. There are only about 800 Christians left in Gaza.

The Western world, which often champions the rights of the religious minorities in the region, is eerily silent.

Since the beginning of the Israeli attack on Gaza, the small Christian minority has been impacted in the same way as their fellow Palestinians. Most Christians have historically lived in Gaza City, an area, like other parts of north Gaza, that was systematically targeted at the very beginning of the war and is currently suffering from a lack of access to food and aid.

Although there is no reliable estimate on the number of Christian homes fully or partially destroyed, the Christians sheltering at the churches indicate to me that Israel has destroyed some 80% of their houses and killed more than 3% of the population.

"While all Palestinians in Gaza are facing a genocidal attack, the Christian community is particularly vulnerable due to its small size and the disproportionate number of casualties"

The displacement comes full circle

The experience of lost lives and livelihoods is reminiscent of our experience during the Nakba: the majority of Christians in Gaza are from families who survived ethnic cleansing in 1948. Those families, forced out of Lod, Jaffa, Majdal, among other places, eventually found shelter with those originally from Gaza City.

Like the rest of the Palestinians in Gaza, they had to experience forced displacement again during this war, sheltering in the only two churches, the Greek-Orthodox Saint Pyrophorus and the Catholic Holy Family, and attempting to find temporary sanctuary.

But even these historic churches were not able to protect them from Israel’s assaults. On 18 October, an Israeli airstrike targeted a building within Saint Pyrophorus Church compound, killing 18 Palestinian Christians, including women and children.

The strike killed the entire family of Abd and Treq Souri and the three kids of Ramiz Sori and others. It is considered one of the worst massacres of Christians in the region.

The Holy Family Church was equally not immune from the Israeli attacks. Although it did not witness as much damage as the Saint Pyrophorus, its Mother Teresa Convent was also partially destroyed.

Then, on 16 December, Israeli snipers shot and killed a mother and her daughter who were seeking shelter in the church, and shot eight more Christians who attempted to try to help the two women.

In addition to the direct killings by Israel at the churches, other Christians in Gaza have died from lack of access to health care and supplies, as Israel has imposed a complete blockade of humanitarian aid. 

One of these is my father, who suffered a heart attack but was unable to access medical help due to the Israeli tanks surrounding the Holy Family Church where my family is sheltering.

The causes of exodus

In the West, people often ask me why the number of Christians in the Middle East is decreasing and why we are leaving. Usually, they were waiting for us to blame the Muslims for their “persecution of Christians.”

But this explanation is not only an oversimplification but also incorrect. No one can deny the occurrence of sectarian discrimination, in some cases, by the Muslim majority against the Christians minorities, but it is often not the primary cause of the mass exodus of indigenous Christians from the land.

Instead, the mass exodus of Christians is caused by scenarios similar to Gaza today: the brutality of wars that make it harder for Christians to survive.

In 1948, Palestinian Christians, like Muslims, were ethnically cleansed from Mandatory Palestine and never allowed back; this was the biggest hit for the number of Christians in Palestine.

Other Western-backed wars and the “War on Terror” have also significantly contributed to the exodus of Christians in the Middle East.

"The Christians of Gaza are facing imminent danger of famine and starvation, and if they survive, there will be very little left to stay for in Gaza"

Take, for example, Iraq, which had over 1.5 million Christians before the American invasion in 2003. The invasion and years of war harmed the Christians like Muslims, and it also created the conditions for the emergence of radical groups like the Islamic State that see religious minorities as a prime target. Today, Iraq has just 150,000 Christians left.

Today, we are witnessing the same episode of assault on Middle Eastern Christians in Gaza, where Israel has killed 3% and displaced another 3% from the Strip. All remaining Christians in Gaza have been forced to leave their homes and shelter at the churches for survival.

The Christians of Gaza steadfastly remain in their churches. They refused to obey the occupation orders to move south. When I was talking to those sheltering at the church, one said that they, “left in 1948 and were never allowed back” and refuse to “repeat the same mistake.”

But with Lent and Ramadan occurring at a similar time, the Christians of Gaza are facing imminent danger of famine and starvation, and if they survive, there will be very little left to stay for in Gaza.

Living under Israel's occupation

Since Israel’s inception, Palestinian Christians have experienced harsh treatment from the various occupation regimes.

In Bethlehem and the West Bank, Christians deal with the confiscation of their land under Israel’s settler-colonial policies. In Jerusalem, Christians wrestle with the policies of Judaisation of the city and the erasing of their presence.

Before the war, Christians in Gaza felt a sense of discrimination by the illiberal Hamas government. However, they have also suffered like all Gazans from the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip.

They have struggled with the permit regime imposed on them by the Israeli occupation. Palestinian Christians are accustomed to visiting the holy sites on Easter and Christmas. However, such visits were always challenging due to the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Rarely did Israel grant them entry permits, and when it did, only half of the family could receive them.

Those permits became the only hope for Christians to escape the dire situation in Gaza to the West Bank. Yet, for Israel, they were used as more means to control the Christian population, as it believed that by making their lives unattainable, the Christian population would leave the country instead.

While all Palestinians in Gaza are facing a genocidal attack, the Christian community is particularly vulnerable due to its small size and the disproportionate number of casualties. It is not clear whether the Christians in Gaza have any future, even if they can survive the famine and the onslaught.

Many members are considering leaving Gaza City after 174 days of Israeli bombardment has made it uninhabitable.

Meanwhile, Western powers have failed to stop Israel from committing atrocities in Gaza and violating international humanitarian law. Worse yet, many are actively complicit in Israel’s genocide.

They have shown their indifference to the Christian minority in Gaza despite paying lip service to the rights of minorities in the region.

Khalil Sayegh is a political analyst focused on Palestinian politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is also the co-founder of the Agora Initiative. Khalil holds a Master's degree in Political science from the American University in Washington, DC, where he researched democratization in the Middle East and Political Violence.

Follow him on Twitter: @KhalilJeries

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