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 shelling

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 who 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 Shujaiya, 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 recalled that in previous wars, there were fewer families.

"Now there is much destruction," he said.

The Israeli assault on Gaza, which has entered its third week, has left at least 701 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 a safe haven in the Strip. The United Nations estimates the number of internally displaced persons in the Strip to be 118,300.

The churches of Gaza were among the very few places left where Palestinians could seek refuge — so far. But on Monday night the nearby cemetery, located in the Roman Orthodox church's yard, was hit in an Israeli strike. 

As a result, five Christian graveyards 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. It 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 did they hit [the church], they [Israelis] will come up with an excuse. But what I know is that Israel announced that churches and mosques are protected areas, they are safe places," said Alexios.

During its 17-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 received a large number of displaced people.

Umm Amjad Shalah, a mother of nine, has run out of options in finding a sanctuary where her family members feel protected. She is one of the many families who 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 Al Jazeera while comforting her 1-year-old baby, born with a birth defect.

Her 10-year-old boy Salman is so traumatized by the war that he would not let go of her.

"Mother, don’t leave me, it’s [the bomb is] going to hit me," he screamed at her. Salman was visibly terrified; his young face and widened eyes showed tension and hysteria.

"Sometimes he screams so loud, it almost sounds like he’s laughing loudly too. Like he’s out of control," said Umm Amjad as she put 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 said.

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

"This is the same Nakba Israel has inflicted upon 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 bombing — unable to go anywhere," Jamal said. Half of the Jamal family members ended up in U.N. Relief and Works Agency schools; the other half had to search for other places.

"The school classrooms were overflowing," Jamal said, adding that some classrooms had over 50 women squeezed in, with little room to move or breathe.

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

Several organizations have been providing iftar every night, securing enough supplies to go through another day, said Alexios, who tries to address immediate needs first.

Local NGOs like Caritas, according to him, have been bringing in water, food and, most important, a generator to pump water for the 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 Shujaiya and cater for their needs.”

Following the church cemetery bombing, 36-year-old Najla Juha, a mother of 10, sent her children to their grandmother's house. They were too scared to stay here, 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 children were asleep, so we had to carry them as we escaped our house,” she said.

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

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

Ala Qandil contributed to this report

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