10/20/2023, 18.12
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Israeli bombs struck the St Porphyrius church, the heart of Gaza's Christian community

An Israeli airstrike hit the Greek Orthodox church and a nearby building sheltering displaced Muslims and Christians, killing at least 17, but the toll is likely higher. The 5th-century church is the oldest in the Strip named after the saint who spread Christianity in the area. The UN releases the latest war-related casualties.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – The “collateral damage" from the war between Hamas and Israel is rising, particularly among the civilian population as well as Gaza’s infrastructure, including buildings that belong to the Christian community, ostensibly oases of peace open to the displaced amid the barbarity of the conflict.

St Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church paid the price last night when the area where is located was hit. This follows the blast that devastated the Anglican-run Al Ahli Arabi Hospital in Gaza City.

“At least 17 confirmed victims, but many others are still under the rubble. Several people were injured, some of them seriously,” a source in Gaza told AsiaNews. The nearby Holy Family Latin parish had also “opened its doors to wounded and displaced people", both Christians and Muslims.

Unlike the hospital attack, in which both sides blame each other with the UN calling for international investigation, in last night's sorties Israeli planes clearly hit the area where the ancient church is situated.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which owns the damaged church, was one of the first to react to the strike, expressing its “strongest condemnation" of the Israeli action in the sector where the Christian place of worship stands.

“Targeting churches and their institutions,” reads the statement, “along with the shelters they provide to protect innocent citizens, especially children and women who have lost their homes due to Israeli airstrikes on residential areas over the past thirteen days, constitutes a war crime that cannot be ignored," the Patriarchate's statement read.

Even though war does not spare places of worship and facilities that provide assistance and shelter, “the Patriarchate, along with the other churches remain committed to fulfilling its religious and moral duty in providing assistance, support, and refuge to those in need”. Such work is indispensable, even in the face of " continuous Israeli demands to evacuate these institutions of civilians and the pressures exerted on the churches in this regard.

Speaking a few days before the site was hit, Father Elias, a Greek Orthodox priest, thought that Israel could target it. Any strike on the church, he said, “would not only be an attack on religion, which is a vile deed, but also an attack on humanity”.

Catholics who remain in Gaza are helping the displaced, coping with the huge needs caused by the war. They include two priests of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, three Sisters from the same order (one from Argentina and two from Peru), three Sisters with the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa (from India, Rwanda and the Philippines), and three Sisters of the Rosary (one from Egypt and two from Jordan).

They call on the Christian community to pray for the strength to continue in the mission with "courage and fidelity".

Bishop Alexis of Tiberias heads the local Orthodox community; he is in Gaza and intends to stay there "even if there is only one Christian left in the area," he said in a message, noting that he was "ready to die" to serve others.

Like in other parts of the world, one of the most tragic aspects of the Gaza war are the attacks against targets that have no strategic or military value, like the Anglican hospital or the area near St Porphyrius Church.

The latter is named after the most important and authoritative historical figure of all Christianity in the Holy Land, father of the Church of Gaza who is celebrated on 26 February, the day he died according to historians.

Often, even in the past, Christians used to turn to Saint Porphyrius to intercede for peace in an increasingly devastated and tormented Strip.

Much of what is known about the saint comes from a biography written by a disciple, Mark the deacon.

Born in 347 A.D. into a wealthy Greek family, Porphyrius gave up his worldly possessions at the age of 31 in favour of the monastic life in Scetis (modern day Wadi El Natrun) in Egypt, where he remained for five years to pray and meditate.

Later he moved to Palestine where he chose a cave near the Jordan River as his home and from which he visited Jerusalem and the holy places, giving everything to the poor.

To support himself he worked as a cobbler, but his fame and the devotion with which he lived his vocation prompted the then bishop of Jerusalem to ordain him a priest at the age of 45; three years later he was appointed bishop of Gaza where he did his utmost to spread the Christian faith.

An appreciated interpreter of the scriptures and known for his miracles (including healings of the sick), he was able to attract not only Christians but also people of other faiths, encouraging conversions in Gaza, which was largely pagan until then. He died in 420.

The saint’s relics are held in the Orthodox church, located in the Al Zaytun Quarter of the Old City of Gaza. Part of the walls still preserve the remains of the ancient 5th-century building, originally rectangular, with three entrances and columns of marble and granite.

The ribbed vaults, the arches, and the external portico date back to the Crusader period around 1150-1160, while the other parts are more recent, after extensive restoration was carried out at the end of the 19th century.

The tomb with the saint’s relics is in the northeastern corner and, even today, it is the object of devotion by visiting pilgrims and local worshippers.

The church was the object of attacks in the recent past, in particular by Palestinian extremists in the wake of the (misunderstood) speech by then Pope Benedict XVI in Regensburg in September 2006, which triggered protests, violence, and attacks in the Islamic world.

Meanwhile, the death toll continues to rise in the Palestinian territory, where Israel’s ground invasion appears to be imminent, according to the latest reports.

In its latest estimates yesterday evening, the United Nations reported 307 Palestinians death in the previous 24 hours alone, while the total number in the Strip stands at 3,785, including 1,524 children and 1,444 women (but the figure is likely higher since many bodies are still under the rubble).

Overall, some 12,845 housing units have been damaged, 9,055 are uninhabitable and 121,000 were slightly affected. More than 527,000 people have been internally displaced (out of a total of two million) and 12,500 have been injured.

On the Israeli side, Hamas holds 203 prisoners, including Israelis and foreigners. About 1,400 Israelis and others have died, most of whom were killed in the first phase of Hamas’s attack on 7 October.

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