Gaza's Christians say Easter prayers marred by grief but filled with hope

Daily calls from Pope Francis give strength to many who have not stepped outside church for months

Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest news on Israel-Gaza

In the northern Gaza Strip, about 800 Christians sheltering in two churches pray for an end to the war.

Their prayers for Easter are filled with sorrow and grief for lives lost, but remain tinged with hope for peace.

Christians sought refuge in the Holy Family Church, the only Roman Catholic parish in Gaza, and the historic Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius, after war engulfed the enclave following the October 7 attacks.

Grieving for lost friends and relatives, they choose to stay within each compound, despite the churches being just a five-minute walk apart, for fear of Israeli bombings.

With food supplies having dwindled, parishioners often make do with bread much like other Gaza residents.

We feel we are next, we feel that any moment can be our last
Rami Aljelda, sheltering with his family in the Greek Orthodox church in Gaza

The tiny number of Christians in Gaza before the war (1,017 out of the enclave's total population of 2.3 million), has dropped further, with many having left.

“It’s inhuman, horrible conditions. More than 50 per cent that have not been outside the door of the church for six months because they are so scared,” George Anton, who lives with his family in the Holy Family Church and is a manager with Caritas, a Catholic humanitarian organisation, told The National.

"There are no fruits, vegetables, no means of life. You can maybe find some cans they throw from planes."

'How can you recover from this?'

Mr Anton says his aunt and cousin were shot dead by Israeli snipers as they walked from the church to a convent building, while 10 other relatives were injured in December last year.

The Roman Catholic Church condemned the December 16 attack that killed two parishioners within the church complex. The Israeli army denied its snipers were involved.

“How can you recover from this?” Mr Anton said about his family, who are still reeling from the shock. “It was an attack on the church itself.”

The community has pulled together with daily mass services, a mobile medical clinic and a project to support the mental health of children.

About 600 Christians including 57 children, elderly and people with disabilities shelter in the Catholic church and about 260 people, mainly Christians, live in the nearby Greek Orthodox church.

People are assigned different tasks such as purchasing food, cooking, handling electricity and managing the water supply.

“We spend hours and hours to gather food for 600 people,” Mr Anton said about his team that goes to the market daily.

“Sometimes we spend days to collect enough flour and rice to feed so many people. Many times we go to the market and we don’t find anything. We are managing, as all people here in Gaza.”

When only wheat is available, the congregation is asked to manage with just bread that day.

“We tell them, ‘Today you take only one bread for you and one bread for your children,’” he said. “Sometimes we don’t cook or bake because we don’t find anything.

“We ask them to manage whatever canned food they have or if they can find something in the market.”

Food expenses are largely covered by the church or sometimes by philanthropist businessmen.

Pope Francis gives courage

Evening phone calls from Pope Francis help build hope. Since October, the Pope has called most days at 8pm Gaza time and spoken to Father Youssef Asaad to check what support the parish requires.

The congregation used to gather around the church stairwell – where the phone signal was stronger – to ask questions. But with no internet available in the church now, Father Youssef takes the calls on the roof and later relays the Pope’s blessings.

“The Pope is still talking to the priest every day and our priest shares these calls with us,” Mr Anton said.

“The Pope speaks to everyone. Every day he tries to find out how people are. Every day he tries to make us feel more safe and tells us that he prays for us.

“The people ask him about security. They ask him to push the Israelis to allow assistance to get to the community and to the churches. Everyone is struggling, people cannot find food and they have no safe place to go.”

Pope Francis has mentioned his phone calls in his St Peter’s Square speeches and, in a recent television interview, he said: “Every day at seven o’clock in the afternoon I call the parish of Gaza. Six hundred people live there and tell what they see.”

In Gaza, church pews are decorated with palm leaves to mark Palm Sunday, the start of the holy week leading to Easter.

“We pray for this war to end,” Mr Anton said.

“When we celebrate Easter Mass, we hope with prayers we can change the hearts of Israelis and Palestinians to sit together and find a peaceful way through dialogue.”

Staying alive

The Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius was hit in an Israeli strike that killed 18 and injured dozens on October 20 last year.

Despite the damage to the site, which dates back to the fifth century AD, many have remained there as the church offers more protection than the demarcated safe zones in the south that are repeatedly shelled.

More than 32,400 people in Gaza have died in Israeli strikes after Hamas gunmen killed about 1,200 people in Israel and took more than 200 hostages.

Rami Aljelda, who works for a humanitarian organisation and lives with his family in the church, said they are "doing their best to stay alive".

“We feel we are next. We feel that any moment can be our last,” said Mr Aljelda.

“We are doing our best to stay resilient. Every day we hear we have lost a community member, we hear terrible news of people we know killed in an air strike.”

After the October strike, some sought refuge in the Catholic church, while others moved south and those with foreign passports left Gaza.

“There was terror after the bombing, we don’t have any place except the church so we decided to remain,” Mr Aljelda said.

After months of staying strong, the 31-year-old wants to leave Gaza and is appealing to friends and family for financial help.

“When I go out on the streets, I see nothing but destruction. I feel I’m in an apocalypse movie, it’s like the end of the world,” he said.

“I wouldn’t be shocked if I saw a zombie walking beside me – that is the only thing missing because everything is destroyed.

“There is no hope here in Gaza. I usually do my best not to go out because it’s a reminder that everything is destroyed outside.”

Easter prayers for peace

Mr Aljelda says all his daughter knows is the church as she was just three months old when they moved from their apartment to sleeping in the church hall with 80 other people.

“She will take her first steps in the church,” he said.

Gaza residents such as Mr Aljelda have lost their homes and cars in Israeli bombings and soaring prices have eaten into their savings. They speak of hunger, shortage of water and bathrooms shared with hundreds of people.

“The first priority is water for the bathrooms,” he said. “We need electricity mainly to get the water from the well to fill tanks on the roof. We can’t take a shower more than once a week.”

Easter prayers hold a sliver of hope that the bloodshed might soon come to an end.

“When we pray, it gives hope and makes us feel we are in a safer place – but it’s just a feeling," Mr Aljelda said.

“But what this also means is that, regardless of war, nobody can stop us from worshipping, nobody can stop us from praying this will end.”

Updated: March 29, 2024, 3:00 AM