Christians gather in Jerusalem to mourn those killed in Israel-Gaza war

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem held a prayer service inside the Holy Sepulchre

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III performed a prayer for peace at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Willy Lowry / The National
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest news on Israel-Gaza

A handful of worshippers and clergy gathered in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Sunday, to mourn the thousands of Palestinians who have been killed in the Israel-Gaza war.

The sparsely populated crowd was a far cry from the teams of tourists, who usually stream through Christianity’s most sacred site and attend Mass at the place where Christians believe Jesus was crucified.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, said a prayer for the victims of the Israeli air strike that hit the St Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church complex on Thursday, killing at least 16 people who had been seeking shelter in the church, part of which dates back to the fifth century.

“We appeal to you to awaken the longing for a peaceful life in all those who are filled with hatred for their neighbours, especially those now at war or preparing for war,” the Patriarch said.

At least 450 people had been sheltering at the church complex in Gaza city when it was hit by an air strike.

The Church, which caters to Gaza’s small Greek Orthodox community, served as a shelter for Christians and Muslims when it was hit.

The Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem issued a strongly worded statement on the attack, calling it a “war crime.”

“The survivors of this horrific bombing are resilient and filled with the spirit of Christ,” the Patriarchate said. “Together with them we continue to display faith through the aftermath of this horrific ordeal. We have come together as a community to support one another, praying for healing and strength in the face of adversity.”

For the handful of faithful who attended the service on Sunday, it was a sombre moment for reflection and devotion.

Church empty

“It's very sad,” said Louisa Varaclas, who was born and raised in the Old City of Jerusalem and attends mass at the Holy Sepulchre every Sunday. “It is a pity for all the victims from everywhere and we just pray for peace that this will be over soon and people will go back to their normal lives.”

Ms Varaclas said she had rarely seen the Church, which is visited by millions of people each year, so empty.

“Usually it is packed with tourists,” Ms Varaclas told The National. “There are less people and it is very constrained, people are sad and we don't know what to expect.”

As the war between Israel and Gaza enters its third week, many fear that the worst is yet to come

More than 4,300 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since October 7, Gaza's health ministry said.

On Saturday, Israel said it would intensify air strikes on the densely populated enclave ahead of a widely anticipated ground invasion.

In that eventuality, analysts fear many thousands more will die following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's pledge to “wipe out,” Hamas.

About 2,000 Palestinians died during Israel's last ground invasion in the enclave in 2014, but it was a limited operation, compared with Israel's recent threat to move forces through the entirety of Gaza.

Updated: October 23, 2023, 5:14 AM