AFP — For the first time in years, Gaza City’s Greek Orthodox church is packed to overflowing, having offered refuge to hundreds of Palestinians who fled their homes under Israeli bombardment.
Around 600 people, mostly women and children, are sheltering in the church compound in the old sector of Gaza City, after escaping the inferno of neighboring areas like Shejaiya.
Saint Porphyrios church and a nearby mosque have opened their doors in a show of interfaith solidarity, offering food, drink and shelter to all Gazans, regardless of their religion.
“A big number of women and kids, babies, they don’t have homes,” Archbishop Alexios told AFP.
“Many of them, their houses are destroyed. Many people have been injured or killed. So we try to help these people.”
Sabah al-Mbyat is among those who has taken refuge at the church after fleeing Shejaiya, where more than 70 people were killed on Sunday, many buried under the rubble of their homes.
The eastern district of Gaza City, a Hamas stronghold, was pummeled by Israeli shelling in one of the deadliest days of the more than two-week conflict between Israel and the Hamas extremists who control the coastal strip.
The church is the fourth place that Mbyat fled to, after first taking refuge at a relative’s home, at a neighbor’s and then at a school run by the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA).
UNRWA is now sheltering more than 100,000 people in 69 schools, but their facilities are overcrowded and supplies running short.
“At the UN school we found there were so many people, one of top of each other,” Mbyat said.
Eventually they heard the church was accepting people. “At the church, they have protected us, welcomed us. We’ve felt a bit safer here,” she said.
Gaza’s Christians have dwindled in number to around 1,500, most of them Greek Orthodox, out of a predominantly Sunni Muslim population of 1.7 million.
The Christian community in Gaza City, like their counterparts elsewhere in the Middle East, has been shrinking due to both conflict and unemployment.
The ancient Mediterranean seafront city once had a thriving Christian community.
Anwaar Jamal arrived at the church having fled Shejaiya in a terrifying ordeal following an ambulance on foot.
“There were planes above us, things were on fire,” she said. “We were so afraid, we could barely walk.”
But the church compound is not immune to the fighting that Palestinian sources say has killed more than 640 Gazans since the July 8 launch of Israel’s operation aimed at halting rocket fire on its citizens. Israel has since focused a ground offensive to uncover dozens of tunnels dug from residential areas like Shejaiya under the nearby border with Israel. Hamas has tried five times to carry out terror attacks from these tunnels in recent days; six IDF soldiers and 20 Hamas gunmen have been killed in firefights when Hamas cells emerged into Israel. Israel says it has found dozens of tunnel openings in homes and mosques in Shejaiya and other Gaza neighborhoods.
Archbishop Alexios said five or six shells slammed into the area of the church and mosque on Monday evening just as people prepared for iftar, the evening meal which breaks the day-time fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“It was a very bad situation, the people were screaming, the ladies, the kids,” he said, adding that a kindergarten run by the mosque, and the church’s graveyard were damaged.
Many of those sheltering at the church are sick, with hygiene conditions increasingly dire in neighborhoods under fire.
Dr. Hassan Ezzedine is volunteering in a room at the church, handing out medicine and tending to the sick.
“The cases we’re seeing are mostly among children. They have severe diarrhea, respiratory issues, some are in shock and completely catatonic,” he told AFP.
Archbishop Alexios said the church would remain open to those seeking shelter,
“Together, Christians and Muslims, are one family, the Palestinian nation, so we try to help our people to have a place to stay,” said the archbishop, a Greek national who has lived for more than the past decade in Gaza.
“We try as much as we can to help, to give love, that’s it. This is the most important, to give love for those who are in need.”