The Imperiled Palestinian Christians

Though reports indicate an alarmingly indiscriminate approach by Israeli Defense Forces, a presenting pattern of Christian targets is suggestive that Christian sites are actually being targeted by Israeli forces.

The Middle East is home to the earliest Christian communities in the history of the Catholic Church. But the homeland of Middle Eastern Christians, and the Holy Land of all Christians, has largely lost its Catholic character over the centuries—both in the religions largely practiced there and in the violence at large between those religions. 

While Muslims, Jews, and Christians, once upon a time, lived in peace for centuries in that region of the world, the modern era has ushered in conflicts of political ambitions, religious ideologies, and genocidal grudges that render peace seemingly impossible. On top of this, in these days of blood and fire, comes the seemingly possible purpose of the tactical and total eradication of Christians from the Holy Land.

Christians make up only a miniscule margin in Gaza—namely, about 1,000 souls, 400 of whom are Catholic. These are the dwindled numbers since Israel set up a restrictive and isolating blockade in 2007 in response to Hamas’ control of the Gaza Strip. Nevertheless, the territory remains the birthplace of Christianity and Catholicism, and those roots may yet serve as avenues of grace and salvation even as that population is threatened perhaps as never before. 

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At the time of this writing, the Palestinian death toll has reached nearly 30,000. Two million people have been displaced in the aftermath of the unspeakable Hamas attack last October that killed 1,200 Israelis and left 250 captured as hostages. In the midst of that pain, there have been several terrible blows to the Catholic presence in that region over the last four months. Though reports indicate an alarmingly indiscriminate approach by Israeli Defense Forces, a presenting pattern of Christian targets is suggestive that Christian sites are actually being targeted by Israeli forces, sending the chilling message that, Hamas or not Hamas, no one in Gaza is safe.

Though Christian numbers are scant in Gaza, it is reported that 3 percent of Gaza Christians have died since the invasion. And the toll of destruction and damage on Christian sites is devastating indeed. Some anticipate that the Palestinian Christian population will be wiped out entirely for the first time in 2,000 years. Such a tragedy could potentially fall into Israeli propaganda narratives against Hamas, claiming that jihadist persecution extends to Christians as well as Jews. This could be a tactical way of garnering Western support and sympathy, though their apparent efforts to blow even Christians off the face of Gaza have not remained as covert as such a strategy would require.

The Holy Rosary Sisters’ School of Jerusalem was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. In Northern Gaza, a Byzantine church was rocked and wrecked by Israeli attacks. And the first Christian monastery built in Palestine—called the Green Shrine, in Deir al-Balah, and dating from the Byzantine era—was damaged as well. 

Explosive destruction was prominently inflicted in a missile attack in the parking lot of the region’s only Christian hospital—Al-Ahli Hospital, run by Anglicans—in which hundreds were killed and injured. The third oldest Christian site in the world, the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrius, was bombed while giving Christians cover. Eighteen people died in the blast, many more were left wounded, and the church was severely impaired. 

Many of these dead from St. Porphyrius were harbored and mourned at Holy Family Parish, the only Catholic Church in Gaza City and the oldest Christian community in the world. While serving as a shelter for hundreds, as so many of these holy sites have, Holy Family became the scene of abject terror when Israeli tanks surrounded it and a sniper shot and killed a woman and her daughter, Nahida Khalil Anton and Samar Kamal Anton, as they left a building in the parish compound. Snipers proceeded to wound seven others who were trying to protect those taking refuge in the church compound. While Israel claimed that the church was provoking attack by concealing a rocket launcher within its walls, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said bluntly that the killings were done in cold blood. 

That same day, an IDF tank fired artillery shells at the convent of the Missionaries of Charity on the parish grounds, where 54 disabled people lived under the care of the nuns and which served as a place of worship and safety since the war. The building was set ablaze, rendering it an uninhabitable husk. Soon after, this lone Catholic church, parish to some 140 Catholics, was badly damaged by shrapnel in a fiery bombardment. 

Still, parish committees have been active, despite the constant risk to their lives. These brave Catholic activists have been organizing and mobilizing efforts to procure and provide food, shelter, medical help, debris removal, and childcare and to keep the liturgy available to the faithful. These parishioners have been likened to the shepherds of Bethlehem, seeking the Lord with steadfast and simple faith. 

Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Jordan were eerily silent, like ghost towns, over the Christmas season by order of West Bank authorities, shuddering in solidarity under the fearful pall of death and hatred—the very curses Our Lord came to redeem mankind from, and in these very lands. The irony of these atrocities tearing at these sacred places of peace and salvation is grim indeed, and it is a travesty to witness such brutality and suffering in the ancestral homeland of the first Christians and our religion’s Holy Land.

And Hamas, of course, is not the only bad actor in this crisis. For decades, since the founding of the nation of Israel, the Palestinian people have been subject to displacement, war crimes, and the machinations of political creeds. If only the grace and consolation of the Catholic Faith could regain its sway in the souls of these poor afflicted ones so they might regain the unique and often paradoxical confidence and courage that trust in Christ bestows. Faith is stronger than war. And though the majority of Palestinians cling to their own Islamic faith—either with extreme hope or, in the case of Hamas, with extremist action—there is a truth that awaits them as it welcomed their ancestors in the early days of the Church. Hamas, of course, is not the only bad actor in this crisis. For decades, since the founding of the nation of Israel, the Palestinian people have been subject to displacement, war crimes, and the machinations of political creeds.Tweet This

Given Israel’s arguably disproportionate retaliation to Hamas’ inarguably despicable attacks, Christians in Gaza must remain strong in the face of ravaging horrors. And they are not powerless. In fact, Israel may well fear the effect they can have on their war with Hamas and their desire to ultimately annex Palestine. For Christians have voices that go beyond the Middle East and around the Western world to expose occupation, oppression, and genocide. And as Christians, as Catholics, we know that we have prayers that go beyond this world to realms that can bring about the miracle of peace. 

Some of this may seem like old conspiratorial news long lost in the rapid media stream. But could it be that the intentions to cover up or de-emphasize these outrages on Christian sites and peoples have been somewhat realized here in the West? Has enough been said in support and concern for our Catholic and Christian brethren in Gaza, whose very existence as a faith community is threatened in a seemingly sinister and certainly tragic fashion? 

Granted, Israel is an ally of the United States and should be permitted to defend its borders, contested though they are—but, as American Catholics, we should not shy away from questioning the degree to which we ought to be in lockstep support of Israel. This is especially true given such direct attacks upon our brothers and sisters in Christ and the brutal aggression Israel is escalating, playing into the Palestinian narrative that, though Hamas’ attack was indefensible, the Zionists have had it coming for a long time. 

And that’s not an anti-Semitic sentiment—it’s simply a pro-peace sentiment. Being Catholic should not be a question of siding with Israel or Palestine but, rather, siding with the precedent of the peaceful coexistence of Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Holy Land; a peace where the truth of the Gospel can thrive and win new souls to the one true Faith.

Let us pray this Lent for the safety, solace, and strength of our Middle Eastern brethren in the Faith, offering our sacrifices to relieve the suffering of all imperiled Palestinian Christians. And above all, let us pray that the bloody and bitter war between Israel and Hamas will be brought to an end, somehow, forever. Lord, have mercy.

[Photo: Gaza City’s Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius, damaged in Israeli bombardment on January 5, 2024. (Credit: AFP via Getty Images)]


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