Israel Defense Forces said in an email statement that a strike targeting a Hamas control center “damaged the wall of a church in the area,” and that it is “aware of reports on casualties” and reviewing the incident.
The Church of St. Porphyrius’s original structure dates back to the 5th century, and the current structure was built in the 12th century. Located in a historic quarter of the city, it is named after a former bishop of Gaza, Saint Porphyrius, and placed where he is believed to have died in A.D. 420. Characterized by thick walls and a richly decorated interior, the church has long been a place of refuge and community for its members, who are a religious minority in the Gaza Strip.
Ibrahim Jahshan, a deacon at the church, told The Post that several hundred displaced Christians had taken refuge on the grounds. Rescuers were still digging through the rubble early Friday, but Jahshan said nine people had died and more than a dozen were wounded in the strike.
The Order of St. George, an associated order of the church, issued a statement saying it had confirmed the strike. “Archbishop Alexios appears to have been located and is alive, but we don’t know if he is injured,” the Order of St. George stated. The blast hit “two church halls where the refugees, including children and babies, were sleeping.”
Fifi Saba, who moved from Gaza to the United States in 2003 and lives in Washington, D.C., said in an interview that she had relatives and friends sheltering in the church at the time of the strike.
“They’re terrified. They’re shaken. They don’t know what to do, and they don’t know where else to go,” Saba said, expressing outrage at the idea that more than a million civilians could evacuate from a place as densely populated and heavily bombed as Gaza City — a mass movement called for by Israel last week. “It’s impossible,” she said.
Her sister, who is in Gaza, told her that their cousins, who are in their 50s, and their adult children were in the church at the time of the strike. Two of her cousins were injured, Saba said, and her friends’ daughter, who was caught under the rubble, needs surgery. She declined to identify them for their safety.
Saba grew up at St. Porphyrius before moving to the United States, and her family has deep ties to the church, dating back to when they became refugees during the 1948 founding of Israel and mass displacement of Palestinians. When she saw images of the church on TV, she looked closely to see whether her grandfather’s grave was still intact.
St. Porphyrius “was my dad’s church, my church, my niece’s church. It’s our family heritage,” she said. “My Easters. My Christmases. Everything was in the church.”
Describing the congregation as close-knit and family-like, she said she’s not just worried about her relatives, “I’m concerned for everyone because we’re a small community.”
Christians make up about 1 percent of Gaza’s population and have faced restrictions and discrimination by Hamas and Gaza’s Islamist government. During the 2014 Gaza war, about 1,000 Palestinian Muslims fled Israeli shelling for the Church of St. Porphyrius, where graves were damaged by shrapnel from a nearby strike, Reuters reported.
In a statement early Friday local time, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem said targeting churches sheltering innocent citizens “cannot be ignored.”
“The Patriarchate stresses that it will not abandon its religious and humanitarian duty, rooted in its Christian values, to provide all that is necessary in times of war and peace alike.”
Hill reported from New York. Ables reported from Seoul.