A view of the damaged Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church after Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, October 20, 2023.


Ali Jadallah/Anadolu via Getty Images 

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Christian Palestinian Jerusalemites, Agonized, Watch as Horrors Befall Family Members in Gaza

Yara (a pseudonym) is a young Christian Palestinian Jerusalemite who has family members in Gaza. On Thursday, October 19, 2023, Yara and her family in Jerusalem were horrified to read that an Israeli airstrike hit the ancient Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church. Around 400 people, Yara’s family members included, had sought shelter in that church. They had had to flee their homes because they had received warnings that their homes would be bombed (which in fact happened), and they assumed they would be safe in the church.

Yara—like all Palestinians—was glued to social media platforms while following the horrendous news in Gaza. “But when it’s your own family, it hits different,” she shared with Jerusalem Story in late October. The team checked on her again in November, as conditions deteriorated (which affected her personal well-being). “I’ve had heart problems since the vicious shelling began,” she admitted, adding that her entire perception of life changed due to the war on Gaza.

“They were safe at church . . . or so they thought.”

Yara (pseudonym), Palestinian Jerusalemite

“When it’s your own family, it hits different.”

Yara (pseudonym), Palestinian Jerusalemite

On October 19, 2023, Yara got the news on her phone that the church her family sought shelter in had been bombed. “The Christian population is tiny in Gaza, no more than 1,000 people, but it exists. My family is among them,” she shared. “I could not connect with my family members as they lost all electricity and internet, but I knew they were hiding in the Orthodox church. That’s what they did during the previous wars [in 2008, 2014, and 2021].”

Yara described the horror of not being able to get through to her family after knowing that the church had been bombed. Eventually, the news came out: Four of her family members were killed due to the shelling. One of them, her aunt, was carrying her newborn grandchild. Both died on the spot. The parents of the child were buried under the rubble; a couple of days later, they were found to be dead.

Yara could not make sense of the news or the fact that she was watching her own family members get shelled publicly, on the television. The missile fell directly on the church; the memory haunts her. “Had they survived the shelling, where would they go? Their house got completely destroyed.”

Palestinians search the destroyed annex of the Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church, the oldest church still in use in Gaza, damaged in an Israeli bombing on October 20, 2023.

Palestinians search the destroyed annex of the Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church, the oldest church still in use in Gaza, October 20, 2023, the day after it was damaged in an Israeli bombing. Many were sheltering in the church at the time.


Dawood Nemer/AFP via Getty Images

Palestinian woman mourns the loss of loved ones after an Israeli strike on Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church in Gaza killed 18 Palestinians who were sheltering there, October 20, 2023.

Palestinian woman mourns the loss of loved ones after an Israeli strike on the Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church in Gaza kills 18 Palestinians who were sheltering there, October 20, 2023.


Ali Jadallah/Anadolou via Getty Images

Eighteen people were killed when the church was shelled. Three days later, a mass funeral was held for them. And then the second shock hit: the deceased were wrapped in shrouds and buried without coffins. “There was no chance to put them in coffins,” Yara reflects. “I can’t make much sense of it, but I know that seeing this reality in Gaza made me doubt my faith in humanity at large. Watching that burial and looking at my own family members searching for dead bodies makes me wonder if I will ever be okay again.”

The final indignity was the inability of families to properly mourn the dead. Because it’s physically impossible to go to Gaza, Yara and her family had to watch the funeral live streamed on social media platforms. The connection was unstable: internet bandwidth in Gaza is limited, and the electricity could be cut at any moment.

Eighteen people were killed.

“The final indignity was the inability of families to properly mourn the dead.”

Yara (pseudonym), Palestinian Jerusalemite

“I haven’t been able to post anything on social media platforms,” Yara confessed. Knowing that Israel has imposed emergency regulations that empower the police to detain Palestinians for expressing solidarity with or even sympathy for Gaza, she had to keep quiet. Palestinians in Jerusalem have been especially frightened of getting arrested for social media engagement on the situation, as has happened to many already.

“They had to escape their homes,” Yara repeated in disbelief, “which got shelled and completely destroyed. They sought refuge at the church. They assumed they wouldn’t get hurt at church: a peaceful place—there was no way that Israel would bomb the church, or so they thought! There is no safe place in Gaza,” she sighed.

“Smoothies by the Beach in Gaza”

“I keep imagining what I would have done in that situation,” Yara wondered. “I’m certain I would’ve said my prayers and bid my farewell to life by now.”

Over the years, and especially during the wars of 2008, 2014, and 2021 and the ongoing genocide, it became much more difficult to connect with the family members.

Yara had last been to Gaza more than two decades ago. “The last time I was there was in 1999, and in 1998 before that. We used to go there frequently when we were kids, and we even used to go by car. I remember having smoothies by the beach. It was not always impossible to go there.” The distance between Jerusalem and Gaza is only 62 miles (100 kilometers).

The distance between Jerusalem and Gaza is only 62 miles (100 kilometers).

Unlike most Jerusalemites, Yara’s friend Queenie had been to Gaza, but that was when she was just a kid—before the siege of 2006. Unlike Yara, she does not have family members in Gaza, but she has friends who lost family members there. “Every person who knows any person in Gaza would know of someone who died there during the war,” she noted. “Social workers, doctors, nurses, kids, parents, families . . . Gone under the rubble.”

An internet search for a route between Jerusalem and Gaza yields no results, December 2023.

An internet search for a route between Jerusalem and Gaza yields no results, December 2023.


Jerusalem Story Team

Yara mentioned that she had met with her Gaza relatives on special occasions—mostly as a child during their visits to Ramallah when they got special permits for Easter holidays. These visits would become less frequent once Israel placed Gaza under siege in 2006. A series of wars followed.

“When I look at the dead bodies on the screens, while the death tolls keep increasing as if it’s a game,” Yara shared, “I keep thinking: these are actual human beings, each one of them has their share of stories and dreams. These children have clothes . . . They have school uniforms, homework, day trips, toys, sibling, friends, families, neighbors . . . They have favorite ice cream flavors and pizza toppings . . . They have art skills, creative talents, and wide imaginations . . . They are not just numbers.”

“I keep thinking: these are actual human beings, each one of them has their share of stories and dreams.”

Yara (pseudonym), Palestinian Jerusalemite

They Never Wanted to Emigrate

Christians are a minority in Gaza, and the latest catastrophe has put them under an imminent threat of extinction. Chances are high that they will entirely cease to exist in the Gaza Strip within this generation.1

“My family members had been managing well in Gaza. Life may be more conservative there, but they managed all right. They were doing well and had nice homes. The Christians are a tiny minority there . . . Not more than a thousand, but they managed to find spouses and insisted on preserving the Christian presence there. They never talked about emigration,” Yara said.

But after more than 40 days of being trapped inside the church, some of them managed to find a way to leave during the first day of the “humanitarian pause.” This included many Christians who left with no way of returning. They had lost their families and homes, all their belongings, and any hope they had for a future in Gaza.

Palm Sunday celebrations in the church of St Porphyrius in Gaza City, Gaza

The interior of St. Porphyrius Church in Gaza City on Palm Sunday in happier times. The church is the third oldest church in the world, and one of the oldest and largest in Gaza. 



“Cold-Blooded Killing”

On December 16, two Christian women—an elderly woman and her daughter—were killed at the Holy Family parish in Gaza City. They were walking to the only available bathroom, which required exiting the church and walking within the church compound to the Sister’s Convent, because water had been cut off to the church for a few days. The mother, Nahida Khalil Anton, was shot first by an Israeli military sniper; her daughter Samar tried to rescue her, whereupon she, too, was shot dead. Seven others were injured.2

Nahida Khalil Anton and her daughter, Samar, shown in an undated photo shared on X (formerly Twitter). Both were shot dead by an Israeli sniper while sheltering on the grounds of the St. Porphyrius Church in Gaza, which they believed was a safe place in the midst of Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza.


Hammam Farah (@hammam_therapy), posted on X (formerly Twitter)

A relative of some people taking refuge in the church who lives in the United States but is in communication with them told BBC News that the family had spent “a couple of hours” hiding on the ground in the church compound, because “they believed the Israelis were shooting anything that moves. They were terrified to go to the bathroom, because the women were shot trying to get to the toilet.”3 The church courtyard was filled with Palestinian Christians who were displaced and seeking refuge.

Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP in the UK, told the Guardian that Israeli forces had “taken the building opposite the Holy Family church, and there are now snipers at every window with their guns pointing into the church. There’s also a tank that’s taken up position outside. Anyone trying to move around is being shot at.”4

No one can explain why Israel would shoot into the premises of the parish, an area that had no militants. The Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Vincent Nichols described the shootings as a “cold-blooded killing” and said he did not believe the Israeli army’s denials. Pope Francis publicly decried the killings as an act of “terrorism.”5



Jonathan Foye, “Gaza’s Christians ‘Under Threat of Extinction,’” Insights: Uniting Church Synod of NSW & ACT, November 17, 2023.


Oliver Slow, “Gazans Trapped in Church Fear Being Shot, Says Relative,” BBC News, December 18, 2023.


Slow, “Gazans Trapped in Church.”

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