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ALM Feature

Gaza’s Orthodox Christians spend grim Easter praying for Palestinian rebirth

The few remaining Christians in Gaza are observing a joyless Easter this week.
AFP via Getty Images

RAFAH, Gaza Strip —  For the Gaza Strip's Orthodox Christians, the ongoing war means this Easter is a time of grief and pain.

On Easter Sunday, Gaza’s Christians who follow the Eastern Orthodox Church will observe religious rituals and pray for peace, skipping the celebrations that usually accompany the holiday.

Dozens of Christians have been among the more than 34,000 Palestinians killed since the war broke out on Oct. 7, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza. The war has also forced more than 1.7 million people into displacement, according to the UN refugee agency, and many of them have taken shelter in schools, hospitals and places of worship.

As the Israeli airstrikes continue to wreak havoc across the Gaza Strip, several churches have been damaged, including one of the world’s oldest active churches, the Saint Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church in the Zaytoun neighborhood of Gaza City.

On Oct. 19, an Israeli airstrike near the church killed at least 17 Christians among hundreds taking shelter in the church complex.  

On Dec. 13, a Christian mother and daughter were shot dead by Israeli sniper fire in front of the Holy Family Church, Gaza’s only Catholic parish, in the same neighborhood. Hundreds of people have been living in that church as well.

Days later on Dec. 17, Israeli airstrikes hit the Young Men’s Christian Association in central Gaza, where 300 displaced people were sheltered, killing six people.  

Israel launched its air and ground campaign on the Gaza Strip Oct. 7 after scores of Hamas gunmen infiltrated southern Israel, killing about 1,200 people and taking more than 240 others hostage.

Grim Easter for Gaza’s Christians

Nabil Saba, who fled Gaza City with his family back in December, has been taking shelter in the Holy Family Church in the city, where around 400 Christians are accommodated. Saba told Al-Monitor that celebrations are impossible via telephone.

“Before the war, Christians would decorate for Easter and families would gather for a traditional Easter dinner and launch fireworks after holding prayers and giving sweets and gifts to children. This year is different,” he said.

Saba lamented the miserable conditions in the church. “We are sleeping on mattresses on the floor, with barely enough food and water to survive, amid total power outages and constant fear of being killed.”

George Antoun, who's managing the emergency shelter in St. Porphyrius Church, told Al-Monitor over the phone that the joy of Easter is gone this year. He said that some 600 Christians are currently sheltered in the church. More than 70% of them have lost their homes to the strikes.

Christians in Gaza have nowhere left to go but the church, he said, and they are living in the same disastrous humanitarian conditions as other Gazans and struggling without food, medication and baby formula.

Antoun added that many displaced people in the church have been injured by shrapnel from the Israeli strikes that hit neighboring houses.

Ebtisam Terzi, from Gaza City, said that Easter ceremonies will be limited to religious rituals.

“I was hoping to buy dye to color the eggs and distribute them to children, as I used to do every year as part of our Easter traditions. But there is no joy this year, and we can’t find eggs to buy,” she told Al-Monitor via phone.

Terzi recounted the story of her Muslim neighbor and close friend. “My neighbor lost her husband and four of her sons when her house was bombarded. She left for the south with her only remaining son. I haven't heard about her since.” She said that she will be praying for her safety and for her return to Gaza City.

War to decimate few remaining Christians

Like Terzi, dozens of Christians have lost hope for the future in Gaza. She said she is seriously considering leaving the enclave for good.

More than 30,000 Christians lived in the Palestinian territories before the 1948 Nakba, according to the Islamic-Christian Committee for the Support of Jerusalem and the Holy Sites. Their figures have been dropping gradually since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967.

Today, less than 800 Christians are believed to remain in Gaza. Dozens have left since Oct. 7, Father Manuel Musallam, a member of the Islamic-Christian Committee, told Al-Monitor via phone.

According to a June 2022 study by the University of Notre Dame, some 1,300 Christians were living in Gaza at the time the study was conducted, 89% of them Orthodox and 9.3% Catholic, and the remaining 1.7% Protestant.

“I am not sure if those who stayed will be able to live in a place where it is impossible to survive,” Musallam said. “Our small Christian community in Gaza is in danger of extermination as this war continues. It's the final nail in the coffin of the Christian presence in the Gaza Strip,” he warned.