The Dilemma of Gaza’s Christians

My friend Sister Nabila Saleh is a petite, warm woman with an impish sense of humor. We first met at Mass on a sunny November day in Gaza two years ago, and over a coffee afterward she told me about her life as a nun with the the Holy Rosary order, running a primary school

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My friend Sister Nabila Saleh is a petite, warm woman with an impish sense of humor. We first met at Mass on a sunny November day in Gaza two years ago, and over a coffee afterward she told me about her life as a nun with the the Holy Rosary order, running a primary school and charitable projects in the Strip. Since the war broke out, in October of last year, her home, the small compound of the Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza City, has become a refuge for hundreds of the displaced. As the city around it became a wasteland, the church remained, remarkably, untouched. That changed on December 16th, when the church came under attack by Israeli forces, killing two women, and injuring seven, and shattering the illusion that any place in Gaza could be safe.

That morning I had messaged Sister Nabila to see how Christmas preparations were going, along with my usual questions to check in on her safety amid what was reported to be intensified fighting in the north. Most days that we texted, even during the war, she would reply with cartoonish and holy GIFs, like Mary with her hands clasped or a baby blowing kisses, and brief assurances that she was safe. On December 17th, however, she replied, “We aren’t OK because they shot two women in front of my eyes.”

The church is situated in the neighborhood of Rimal, in Gaza City, and its name reflects the immense spiritual meaning of Gaza for Christians, which was noted in the Bible as a stop for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on their journey to and from Egypt. Gaza was once home to a thriving Christian community, but a count this year found just a hundred and thirty-five Catholics there, among a thousand and seventeen Christians, according to the Catholic Church. Those who stay speak of feeling an ethnic connection to Gaza, as Palestinians, and a spiritual one, as Christians. Relations between Christians and Muslims in Gaza are peaceful—the parish emphasizes the participation of parishioners in interfaith outreach for elderly people and the poor; Christian schools, including a primary school run by Sister Nabila, educate thousands of Muslim children.

Typically, in late December, some of the Christians of Gaza would be receiving Israeli exit permits to travel to Bethlehem and Jerusalem for Christmas. This year, of course, permits were out of the question. By December, the Holy Family church had taken in almost three hundred people, most of them Christian. Having sheltered people during previous conflicts, the church had some stockpiled supplies, which it was able to replenish during the temporary ceasefire in November. But now supplies were dwindling. Cornelia Sage, of Catholic Relief Services, said that her organization had been able to provide some humanitarian relief to Gazans in the south, but convoys attempting to reach the north have no assurances for their safety, after Israeli forces shot at a U.N. convoy in late December. (The Israel Defense Forces said that soldiers only fired warning shots after seeing the U.N. convoy and that it takes “feasible precautions to mitigate civilian harm.”) My friend Rami, a social worker sheltering in the church, told me in late December that rations were getting smaller to save food. On Christmas Eve he sent a picture of himself at Mass, and he looked markedly thinner. Since the start of the war, he said, he’s lost about thirty pounds.

Despite the shrinking rations, the church compound seemed relatively safe. In early October, diplomats from some Western countries had noted to Israeli military liaisons that the Holy Family church was sheltering civilians who could not evacuate to the south. According to e-mails provided to Politico, Catholic Relief Services and U.S. Senate staffers had flagged the church for protection to Israeli authorities. And yet, on the morning of December 16th, an Israeli tank fired at a residence in the church compound that houses fifty-four individuals with disabilities, destroying the building’s sole generator and damaging solar panels and water tanks, according to the Latin Patriarchate. Everyone inside was safe, but their fuel for residents’ necessities was diminished. With unreliable cell-phone service, Father Youssef, a Gazan priest, attempted to call the Patriarchate for help, trying to get church leadership to relay to the Israelis that they were targeting a safe zone.

Shortly after, around noon, Edward Anton, a former colleague of mine at Doctors Without Borders who is staying at the church, thought he saw Israeli military nearby and shouted at people in the building not to go outside. He says he thinks his elderly mother, Nahida Anton, didn’t hear him. She walked out into the courtyard to use a bathroom in a different building. Edward says she was immediately shot three times. Hearing the shots, his sister Samar ran outside and tried to drag their mother’s body back to safety. Samar was killed, too. Seven more people, including Edward and his father, ran into the courtyard and were injured by bullets before leaving their bodies behind.

Sister Nabila says that, for hours, they looked on as their bodies remained in the courtyard, fearing that any movement would provoke more bullets. “They were under our eyes, and we were close to them, unable to approach them until Father Youssef spoke to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem,” she told me.

After Nabila’s messages, I checked the Holy Family’s Facebook page. A priest had posted images of the injured lying on thin mattresses at the base of the church’s altar, receiving Communion from their beds. I immediately recognized Edward. In the photo, he looked astonishingly pale as he strained his head from the mattress to receive the host. Rami told me that Edward had been shot in the leg. He said that the church was trying to coördinate with Israel for Edward to be taken to a hospital in Egypt, to no avail.

I spoke to Edward on December 21st, five days after the shooting, Edward told me that he thinks the shooting lasted around ten minutes. His father, his wife, and three nephews, aged twenty-four, sixteen, and fifteen, had all been injured, along with two others. At that point, they had not yet made it to one of the few remaining hospitals in Gaza, unsure whether the area was safe enough for travel. In the meantime, men dug new graves in the church garden for Samar and Nahida. The same priest posted a photo of their bodies, wrapped in white blankets at their funeral. Sister Nabila is in the background, clutching a Bible, seemingly lost in thought. Zooming in, her mouth is agape, her brow furrowed, and I see shock and sadness on her face.

Finally, right before Christmas, the fighting in the neighborhood seemed to have quieted, and the church felt that it was safe enough to drive the injured to Al-Ahli Hospital nearby. The ride was nerve-racking and the hospital was chaotic, Edward told me. Al-Ahli was one of the first hospitals to be hit during the war, and there was a controversy over whether the Israeli military or Palestinian militants was responsible. On December 19th, the Israeli military had raided the hospital and detained staff members, leaving just two doctors, four nurses, and two janitors, according to the Reverend Don Binder, who works for the Anglican diocese, which oversees the hospital. (They were released weeks later.)

An X-ray at Al-Ahli found that Edward had bullet fragments in his leg. He would need surgery, as would his nephews, but they would have to wait for surgical capacity to be restored. He attended Christmas Eve Mass in a wheelchair.

After the bombing of Al-Ahli on October 17th, tensions between the Christian churches and the Israeli government seemed to be at a historic high. Then they rose again. On the evening of the Holy Family attacks, the Latin Patriarchate’s statement was its strongest yet, directly identifying the Israeli military as the perpetrator and stating, “No warning was given, no notification provided. They were shot in cold blood inside the premises of the parish, where there are no belligerents.”

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