‘Proud to be here’: Gaza faithful celebrate Orthodox Easter

Christians in besieged coastal strip are a smaller population than ever, impacted by blockade and increasing intolerance

Easter service at St. Porphyrius Church in Gaza City.
Ezz Al Zanoun

GAZA CITY — About 150 worshippers from Gaza’s Orthodox Christian community gathered at the St. Porphyrius Church in Gaza’s old city this weekend despite spring storms keeping many families at home. 

On Saturday night they had met for prayers and the arrival of holy fire as part of Easter observances and celebrations, the most important holiday in the Orthodox Christian calendar. The Holy Week of Easter, beginning with Palm Sunday, features daily church services and is preceded by 50 days when observant Christians abstain from meat, fish, dairy products, oil and wine.

“This is the biggest day in our religion and I’m very proud to be here,” Natalie Sayegh, 16, said during the service.

The midnight arrival of the holy fire — a flame sourced from Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre and taken into the besieged Gaza Strip in coordination with the Israeli military — drew smiles from worshippers who greeted one another with Al Massih kam, Hakan kam (“Christ is risen, indeed he is risen”). Archbishop Alexios emerged wearing a bejeweled crown. Bearing lit candles he walked in procession with altar boys and the church choir, spreading the fire to candles held by the congregation to accompaniment of ringing church bells and fireworks.

It is festive cheer for an isolated and diminishing community. The number of Christians living in Gaza is thought to have decreased from 3,500 in 2007 to 1,300 today, with the Orthodox community accounting for 90 percent. The most recent decline has coincided with the period of Hamas rule and the Israeli and Egyptian imposed blockade of Gaza, preventing most trade and travel with the outside world.

This year’s Easter celebrations came two weeks after the completion of repairs to the church compound following damage from missile strikes during last summer’s war with Israel. On July 22, 2014, Israeli missiles targeted a site adjacent to church, spraying the grounds with shrapnel and damaging the church walls and graveyard as Muslims, mostly from the Beit Hanoun and Shuja'iyya districts, sought refuge.

A worshipper receives Communion from Archbishop Alexios.
Ezz Al Zanoun

“We had 650 people, mostly women and children, sheltering in the church grounds.  Their homes were being bombed so they came to stay safe,” Alexios said. “One rocket hit next to the church, behind the cemetery. Everyone was screaming and all the people went out to see what happened. And then the Israelis hit again.”

He added: “Five bombs hit and thankfully nothing happened to anyone, nobody was injured. Our water tanks were destroyed, so our neighbors gave us water, as they have a well. We coordinated with humanitarian organizations to supply one meal each day. We needed diapers, mattresses, blankets, milk for the children and arranged doctors and nurses to come. The bombing forced one pregnant lady into labor and she gave birth here.”

The Archbishop, who in addition to his liturgical duties, coordinates the church’s school, youth activities and charity works said he hoped the outside world would act to help ease the Gaza Strip’s isolation.

“Today the world calls Hamas terrorists, tomorrow they might be accepted. This is the game of politics and power,” he said. “But for the people, they can’t help [but] be involved. If they help fighters they are called enemies by Israel, and if they refuse, they are enemies of the resistance and called traitors.”

After the arrival of the holy fire, the congregation went outside and prayed.
Ezz Al Zanoun

Christianity has a rich history in Gaza, home to a host of saints and martyrs from the religion’s early years as a persecuted faith and its subsequent transformation into the state-sponsored religion of the Roman Empire. St. Porphyrius, whose eponymous church still serves the Orthodox community, was made bishop of the city in 396, a time when the city was known for pagan hostility toward Christianity. Porphyrius faced down a restive populace, obtaining imperial decrees for the destruction of temples and the effective eradication of paganism in Gaza.

The Christian community again finds itself a small minority, comprising a mere 0.08 percent of Gaza’s 1.8 million people, although it enthusiastically maintains traditions dating back nearly two millennia. 

Churchgoers said Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood which won the last Palestinian national elections in 2006, does not create problems for the community — although an increasingly religious and isolated society presents challenges.

“We are living here together with Muslim people and our only problem is with those who don’t have an open mindset. Sometimes people characterize us in a bad way if they don’t know the relations between us and other Muslims,” said Ibrahim, a doctor and attendant at the church who preferred not to offer his surname for privacy reasons.

Like many Gazans, Ibrahim is concerned at the presence of extremists sympathetic to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and willing to perpetrate attacks on religious minorities.

“Hamas is safer for us than Da'esh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIL.  “They are here but nothing has happened until now.”

Gaza’s Hamas rulers officially deny any ISIL presence in Gaza, though evidence of support for the group can be seen in graffiti, leaflets and flyers around the Strip.

“We have Da'esh here in Gaza but they stay underground. Hamas don’t let them come up, they kill anyone without caring,” said Naseem Matta, 29, who was celebrating Easter alone after his family were granted permission to travel to Jerusalem for the holidays.

Israel permits only certain people aged under 16 and over 35 to exit Gaza and attend Easter services in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

“I’m waiting to be able to go to Jerusalem in five years,” Naseem said. “There are not a lot of Christians here, and life can be difficult for us. Alcohol is banned here — you can’t even have one drink — and you get people saying things to you about your religion.”

For Naseem, along with others his age, the continued blockade of Gaza, and its impact on the local economy, is of more immediate concern. In September, the World Bank described the economic and social situation in Gaza as “dire,” with unemployment reported at 45 percent.

“There are no jobs here so I spend my days looking after my pet birds,” he said. Lack of work and the size of the Christian community hinder his marriage prospects. “It’s difficult to get married, as the Christian population is small and you have to be really fast to get a girl.”

Alexios, who assumed his office 15 years ago on the eve of the second intifada, said the conflict between Palestinians and Israel, which has seen more than 2,600 Palestinians killed in three major Israeli military offensives against Gaza since 2008, is more manageable for people than the isolation of the blockade.

“There are too many wars here, but people find a way to process this. The difficulty is the closure. Gaza is closed from Egypt and Israel and from the sea,” he told Al Jazeera. “The people are trapped, and the psychological impact of that is the biggest problem. After that, the financial problems — there is no market, no money and no work. The people need work but have nothing. The Israelis want the people to be beggars. There is no work for young people, and they cannot leave to work elsewhere.”

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