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
  • Get to the point
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: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before