About 1,000 Palestinian Muslims fleeing Israeli shells that are being dropped in their Gaza neighborhood have found shelter in a building they otherwise would rarely if ever enter, the city’s 12th-century Greek Orthodox Church.
Children from the Shejaia district, where some 72 Palestinians – many of them women and children – were killed during fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas militants on Sunday, were busy playing football in the yard on Tuesday.
“We have opened the church in order to help people. This is the duty of the church and we are doing all we can to help them,” Archbishop Alexios told Reuters as the sounds of small children echoed outside his office at the church.
“At the beginning there were 600 people and today they became a thousand – mostly children and women. Some of those children are a week old,” said the head of Gaza’s Greek Orthodox minority, the largest of the Christian communities here.
Only about 1,400 Christians – Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants – live among the 1.8 million Muslims, meaning they make up 0.08 percent of the population in the crowded Gaza Strip dominated by Hamas, an Islamist group.
Their life as a religious minority has not always been easy. Militants— including members of Hamas— have often attacked the church in times of upheaval between the communities. In 2006, when then Pope Benedict quoted a medieval scholar describing Islam as a violent and irrational religion, militants attacked five Christian churches in Palestinian areas, including Saint Porphyrius.
“The mosque nearby and the neighbors of the church are all helping. We are still in need of mattresses, blankets, food and most important is petrol, as we suffer blackouts. If there is no electricity we cannot have water also,” said the archbishop.
Despite the overcrowding and danger, Alexios said there has been some joy in the church in the midst of tragedy.
“Yesterday, a woman gave birth to a baby, a new life. Man should be hopeful.. There is death but also there is life too,” he said with a smile.