Israel-Gaza conflict: Greek Orthodox church of St Porphyrios becomes a small refuge in the heart of Gaza’s bloodletting

Desperate Palestinians have sought shelter in a local church

Gaza

The Sunday service had been taking place in a morning of quietness and calm, a rare chance of reflection amid the turbulence of war. That ended as the last prayers were being held, the sound of air strikes and tank rounds echoing not far from the church: the ‘humanitarian ceasefire’ was over.

It was one interlude on 24 hours of truce and counter-truce. A six hour window agreed on Saturday by Israel and Hamas; the Israeli government extending it to 12; Hamas rejecting it, fighting starting again; the Israelis offering a 24 hour ceasefire, only to cancel it; Hamas then offering their own 24 hours ceasefire; Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu charging that Hamas had breached its own ceasefire.

Amid all this two things were clear to the refugees who had taken refuge at St Porphyrios: they were not going to go back to their homes they had been forced to abandon, and they were not going to move to the mosque down the road. Both, they felt, would be highly dangerous.

Around 2,000 people, the vast majority of them women and children, including infants, had gathered at the Greek Orthodox church in Zaytun, and although caring for them was meant to be shared with the Katib Weleyat, most, all of them men, went to the mosque to pray and to use the washing facilities. Families sleep on mattresses in the corridors and rooms of the church and adjoining buildings, meals are provided, and doctors from a nearby private hospital have been providing medical care.

 

The midnight prayers for the last Friday of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, were held at the courtyard of St Porphyrios. “It would have been simply too risky going there, they might have bombed the mosque,” Sajal Abu-Hamsha wanted to explain, sitting this afternoon at the same courtyard. “We certainly would not go and live there, the Israelis have bombed so many mosques already”. Around a dozen gathered around murmured agreement.

Sajal and her husband Fadil cannot take their family of 10 back to their home at the town of Beit Hanoun. They returned during the ceasefire on Saturday to find it had been pulverised. “There was nothing left, we did not have much time when we had to leave out home, there were things we wanted to collect, but everything had been destroyed. We came back here quickly, we feel we are safe here.”

St Porphyrios has been hit by tank shells, blowing up water tanks, damaging a neighbouring house belonging to the church, as well as some tombs in the adjoining graveyard. “That was last Monday and we haven’t been hit since. The Israelis know where we are and I can only hope what happened last week was a mistake, we have had things nearby, but no more damage so far” said Alexios, the Archbishop of Tiberias and Gaza, after holding the morning service.

The congregation had been no more than 20, compared to around 250 before the conflict. “People are scared, they don’t want to leave their home, petrol for the car is a problem”, pointed out the Archbishop. Later in afternoon, the body of a Christian woman was found buried under debris nearby. The total death toll for Palestinians stands at 1060, according to health officials in Gaza. Forty-three Israeli soldiers have been killed.

St Porphyrios dates back to 407 AD. It was converted to a mosque in the 7 Century and a new church built in the 12 Century. “This has been a place of God for a long time and if people seek sanctuary it is our duty to provide it. But we cannot take any more, there are around 600 people in the church itself, 430 of them are children, 117 of them are babies aged 20, 30 days. So the fact is”, said the Archbishop, “we can’t take any more, we would not be able cope.

Read more: Hamas holiday truce ignored by Israel
During ceasefire, Gazans search for their dead and injured
The secret report that helps Israel to hide facts

“I know people feel safer here than a mosque. I know a number of mosques had been bombed; why the Israelis do it? Who knows?”

The Israeli military insists that Muslim holy place had been hit because they were being used by militants. After missile strikes reduced al-Farouq mosque, near the Nuseirat refugee camp to rubble, leaving just the minaret standing, it issued aerial photos which showed, it stated, that rockets were being stored there.

No explanations, however, have been given for other attacks. Ten minutes’ drive from the church, the dome of the Al-Shamaa mosque was pitted with holes, the windows had been in blown in. The building next door, attached to the mosque and used for ablutions before prayers, was the main target. “But they fired at the mosque as well”, maintained Ahmad Huddad, the caretaker. “So you see, not even a place of worship is safe now.”

That was the definite view of the al-Adawi, an extended family of 30 who arrived outside St Porphyrios. They had left their home between Zaytun and Shujayia following fierce bombardment, returning during the truce on Saturday. But that got cancelled, shelling began, and they left again.

Read more:
Kerry's mission continues, but Israel wants to be clear victor
Anger over Gaza: The world tells Israel - 'Enough!'
Comment: What's the use of 'balance' in an asymmetric war?

They had tried UN shelters, unused schools, to find they were full. Now they have been told there was no room at the church either.

The al-Adawis were experiencing the social strains on an already fractured society which have come with more than 100,000 people on the move. “We were staying with my brother-in-law for a while, but he became unhappy with having so many people in the house, that is the reason we went back to our home” explained Mohammed al-Adawi. “But it got really dangerous this morning, so we left. We had put all our hoped on this church, all we need is somewhere to sleep.”

Two men joined the conversation. “We can’t have 100 people coming here every day from other areas” declared Ahmed Shabaan. “Everyone is under pressure here, they should stay in their own areas, or they should keep going, maybe to Gaza City. This area cannot take any more.” His companion offered them a temporary place at the mosque. “You will be alright there” he assured, before admitting that he was not staying there himself.

The family were adamant they were not going to go down that path. “I got this at a mosque” claimed Safwan al-Adawi, pointing to a cut on his head, “and I had just gone there to pray”. Mr Shabaan, who was keen stress that he was an American citizen, had served briefly in the US army, and had broad experience of life, was dismissive: “That is the problem here, it’s the culture, people think others should look after them.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Sport
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
News
Image from a flyer at the CPAC event where Nigel Farage will be speaking
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower