An ancient Orthodox Christian church in Gaza has been sheltering Muslims fleeing Israeli shelling and bombings, Reuters reports.
The Church of St. Porphyrios, named for the fifth century bishop who Christianized the then-pagan city of Gaza, has been working with the mosque next door to house over 1,000 Muslims.
“People started coming in on Sunday, more and more people, so we couldn’t even think about holding our Sunday service,” Archbishop Alexios told The Guardian.
According to the BBC, more than 600 Palestinians and 30 Israelis have been killed since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8. The Muslims taking shelter in the church fled from nearby Shejaiya, which the Israeli government announced its intentions to strike last week. The attack began early Sunday morning and became the deadliest day of the operation. (RELATED: Obama Pressures Israel To Curb Anti-Tunnel Defense)
The Israel Defense Forces released a statement Sunday, saying “Hamas uses the residential neighborhood of Shejaiya as a fortress for its weapons, rockets, tunnels and command centers. Hamas exploits the neighborhood’s residents as human shields for its terrorist activity. … In just 13 days, Hamas has fired over 140 rockets from Shejaiya into Israel.” (RELATED: Kerry Calls Israeli Offensive ‘Helluva Pinpoint Operation’)
“At the beginning there were 600 people and today they became a thousand – mostly children and women,” said the archbishop. “Some of those children are a week old.”
The church, along with four others in the area, was attacked in 2006 after some Muslims took offense to a lecture in which Pope Benedict quoted negative characterizations of Islam from a 15th century text. While Pope Benedict was the head of the Catholic Church at the time, only two of the five churches attacked were Catholic.
Now the church finds itself subject to Israeli shelling. “The shrapnel even came into the monastery and destroyed our water tanks,” Alexios said. “The shelling was very strong and the children were crying. … I don’t believe they intended to attack the church, but we are only a kilometer from Shejaiya and we are in Zeitoun, so the shells have been coming at us from both sides.”
The church cemetery and a nearby Protestant school were also shelled.
“Crime is on the rise,” said Catholic priest Fr. Jorge Hernandez, pastor of the Holy Family Parish in Gaza. “Little children are getting sick from fear, stress, shockwaves and the continuous noise. Sunday, we were able to celebrate holy Mass, thank God, with seven nuns and five brave men. … There are some people who have thanked us for our presence here. They tell us every once in a while: ‘You are not going to abandon us, are you?'”
Fr. Hernandez has refused to evacuate the city.
“We have opened the church in order to help people,” said Alexios. “This is the duty of the church and we are doing all we can to help them.”