Hiding in the shadow of the pastor in Gaza

Gaza’s churches provide families with shelter but they remain a possible target for Israel’s war machine
SHELL-SHOCKED: DISPATCHES FROM A WAR Gaza City — Gaza’s Greek Orthodox Archbishop Alexios has not had much sleep in the past few days. He has been busy ensuring that scores of Palestinian families that sought refuge in his church, the Church of Saint Porphyrius, are getting all the help they need.

“People did not know where to go. We had to help by opening the church’s doors for women, babies, young and old people,” Alexios told Al Jazeera.

On Sunday, a few hundred people, mostly families escaping the death and destruction of Shejaiya, came to the church, increasing the number of those sheltered in the church and the neighboring mosque to at least 1,000.

The gesture by the Greek Orthodox church sparked much solidarity in the community.

This is not the first time that churches have been turned into refugee centers during times of war. Alexios recalls that in previous wars, there were fewer families.

“Now there is much destruction,” he said.

The Israeli assault on Gaza, Which is entering its third week, has left at least 658 Palestinians dead, including 161 children and 60 women, and over 4,000 injured. Thousands of families were forced to flee their homes in search of safe haven. The UN estimates the number of internally displaced persons in the Strip to be at 118,300.

The churches of Gaza are among the very few places left where Palestinians can seek refuge — so far. But on Monday night, a cemetery located in the Roman Orthodox Church’s yard was hit by an Israeli strike.

As a result, five Christian graves were destroyed and a funeral-service car was hit by two Israeli tank shells, according to Kamel Ayad, director of public relations at the church. The attack also caused panic among the refugees. Some even left in the middle of the night only to come back in the morning.

“If we ask why they hit [the church], they [the Israelis] will come up with an excuse. But what I know is that Israel announced that churches and mosques were protected areas. They are safe places,” said Alexios.

During its seventeen –day assault, Israel’s army has hit at least five mosques.

The Church of Saint Porphyrius, the Latin Catholic Church and the Holy Family Church have also taken in a large number of displaced people.

Umm Amjad Shalah, a mother of nine, has run out options for finding a sanctuary where her family protected. Hers is one of the many families that sought refuge in the Roman Orthodox Church.

“I thought Israel would not bomb us here, in a church-so we are taking refuge in the shadow of the pastor,” she told A’ Jazeera while comforting her one-year –old baby, born with a birth defect.

Her ten-year-old son Salman is so traumatized by the war that he will not let go of her.

“Mother, don’t leave me! It [the bomb] is going to hit me!” he screams at her. Salman is visibly terrified, his young face and wide eyes showing tension and hysteria.

“Sometimes he screams so loud, it almost sounds like he’s laughing loudly. Like he’s out of control,” says Umm Amjad as he puts a hand on his head. “We were so scared last night, even inside the church. Tank shells were pounding the area all around, hitting very close to us,” she says.

Umm Amjad said that the way the refugee resident of the Shejaiya neighborhood had to flee their homes over the last few days served as a grim reminder of the Nakba days, when thousands of Palestinian were driven out of their homes and off their land by Israel in 1947 and 1948.

“This is the same Nakba that Israel inflicted on our parents in the past, and now on us and our children. This is the very same terrifying experience our parents went through,” she told Al Jazeera.

Nadia al-Jamal, 20, is another Palestinian who was forced to flee the Shaaf neighborhood when the bombing intensified.

“We were all huddled in the living room when Israeli tank shells were falling-unable to go anywhere,” Jamal said. Half of the Jamal family ended up in UNRWA schools, while the other half had search for other places.

“The School’s classrooms were overflowing,” she said, adding that some classrooms had over 50 women squeezed into them, with little room to move or breath.

Jamal has now spent two days at the church. “It was only yesterday, when Israel began bombing right around the church, that we began to lose hope that the church would be a place of safety,”

Church leaders, however, Caution that there is a limit to how much the church can offer, particularly given Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the ensuing dire conditions.

“Banks are closed, and as of now, the church has insufficient funds to buy food and water for the incoming people,” Ayad told Al Jazeera.

According to Alexious, many people-Christians and Muslims-have reached out to the church to offer help. “The baker provides bread, some provide water and blankets, while others offer whatever they can. It is one society here in Gaza, like a big village,”

Several organizations have been providing food for the iftar meal every night, securing enough supplies to go through another day, Local NGOs like Caritas, according to Alexios, have been bringing in water, food and most importantly a generator to pump water for refugees.

“God brings good people here with a will to help. There is a committee from the neighborhood which takes care of those who fled shejaiya, catering to their needs.”

Following the church cemetery bombing. 36-year –old Najla Juha, a mother of ten, sent her children to their grandmother’s house. They were too scared to stay in the church, she said.

“The priests are here, they try to help. But it is not enough, we have nothing- no mattresses, no food, no clothes, we couldn’t bring anything with us because the children were asleep [when the attack happened], so we had to carry them as we escaped our house,” she said.

Ayad said that his church was offering whatever it could and, as in all previous wars, Muslim Palestinians had sought refuge inside the churches after mosques were targeted first.

He added that the church would continue to offer a safe haven, though he was not sure if the church was immune from Israeli attacks.

Mohammed Omer
Speaking Tiger Publishing, Pg 311


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