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‘War knows no religion’: Gaza’s oldest church, The Church of Saint Porphyrius, shelters Muslims and Christians displaced by Israeli bombing

October 17, 2023
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In Gaza City, when an Israeli air raid demolished Walaa Sobeh’s home and much of her neighborhood, this Palestinian Muslim found refuge in Gaza’s oldest church. The Church of Saint Porphyrius not only provided sanctuary but also a sense of unity among those facing the terror of exploding bombs and the hope of surviving Israel’s attacks.

She reached out to her relatives in north Gaza, urging them to seek refuge at the church as well. Sobeh’s family is just one of many Palestinian families of different faiths who have sought safety, at least for the time being, in this ancient church.

Amid the recent surge in Islamophobia following the Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza, the Greek Orthodox church has emerged as a symbol of a shared Palestinian identity.

“We are living day by day, unsure if we’ll make it through the night. But the compassion and warmth of everyone here eases our pain,” Sobeh explained. She praised the “enormous support from the priests and other church volunteers who tirelessly help the displaced families.”

Remarkably, the church has so far avoided Israeli airstrikes, though Father Elias, a priest at Saint Porphyrius, remains cautious. He noted that the Israeli military has targeted other places of sanctuary, including mosques and schools that sheltered those whose homes were destroyed.

Any attack on the church, Father Elias emphasized, would not only be an assault on religion, which is reprehensible, but also an attack on humanity. He expressed, “Our humanity implores us to extend peace and comfort to those in need.”

The Church of Saint Porphyrius, constructed between the 1150s and 1160s and named after the 5th-century bishop of Gaza, has historically provided solace for generations of Palestinians in Gaza during times of fear.

Now, the church’s sacred spaces, once filled with prayers and hymns, serve as a refuge for both Muslims and Christians. As Father Elias wisely points out, “war knows no religion.”

George Shabeen, a Palestinian Christian sheltering in the church with his family, described how they had no other safe haven, as their streets had been targeted by three Israeli air raids. “Coming here saved our lives,” he said. “During the night, we huddle together – Muslims and Christians, old and young – and pray for safety and peace.”

For Sobeh, the fact that families of different faiths stand together beneath the church’s roof amidst the trauma of bombing is an act of resistance in itself. She stated, “Israel’s aim is to fracture our community and displace us. They may have the power to harm us, but we will persist as Palestinians, united in life and death, as Muslims and Christians.

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