Israeli forces opened fire on the Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza City on December 16th, killing two women sheltering inside amid heavy fighting. The church compound incurred damage as violence escalated between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants.
Tensions have run high in recent months between Israel and Gaza. On December 9th, Israeli forces launched airstrikes on Gaza in response to rocket fire from militants, which Israeli officials say was preemptive action to thwart planned attacks.
The latest violence marks the most intense fighting since an 11-day war in 2021 left hundreds dead. It also follows months of tensions in the West Bank after a surge in attacks on Israelis that killed 19 people.
The Holy Family Catholic Church, located in Gaza City’s Zaytun neighborhood, is the lone Catholic church serving Gaza’s tiny Christian community of just over 1,000 people. Many Christians stayed inside seeking shelter from the escalating violence.
Church Compound Attacked
On December 16th, as fighting raged in Zaytun between Israeli tanks and Palestinian militants, Israeli snipers opened fire on the church compound. Bullets pierced through stained glass windows with apparent precision, indicating deliberate targeting according to church officials.
Two women were shot and killed inside: Ramez al-Khour, a 56-year-old mother, and her 15-year-old daughter Natalie, who were praying in a section reserved for women when the gunfire erupted. Eight others suffered injuries.
Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Jerusalem’s top Catholic prelate, said in a statement: “The targeting of civilians is absolutely unacceptable and cannot be justified. It is pain, horror and grief that we have in front of our eyes.”
The church walls and roof incurred damage from what parish priest Gabriel Romanelli said he believes was tank fire. Explosions shook the compound, blowing out doors and windows as parishioners huddled inside seeking shelter.
The attack elicited shock and condemnation from Christian leaders worldwide as well as international political figures.
British MP Layla Moran, who has family in Gaza, said on Twitter: “My family are sheltering in the church and throughout this senseless conflict ordinary Gazans are once again bearing the brunt.”
In the UK, Vincent Cardinal Nichols called it a “seemingly deliberate attack” that must be fully investigated, saying “the right of sanctuary within such a sacred building must be respected.”
The World Council of Churches stated it was “deeply shocked by the attack” and the “disregard for one of the most holy sites of Christianity” in a predominantly Muslim part of the world.
Christians in Gaza
Gaza’s Christian population has plunged from several thousand in the late 1990s to just over 1,000 today, as many have fled conflict and hardships in the blockaded territory ruled by Hamas militants.
The Holy Family parish is one of just three churches left, catering to the remaining Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Baptists. Many rely heavily on aid from Christian charities abroad.
Parishioner Manerva said she spent 50 days sheltering inside Holy Family church during the 2021 war. Like others who remain she says leaving is not an option, and she urged international intervention to protect them.
Sami El-Yousef, regional head of Catholic charity Pontifical Mission Societies, said Gazan Christians have endured substantial suffering amidst the turmoil. While tragic, the church attack seems unlikely to spur an immediate exodus given the lack of options available, though consequences may emerge long-term he said.
As ceasefire talks continue, much uncertainty looms about the future. More violence appears probable without meaningful progress towards peace.
With Holy Family church damaged, Gazan Christians have lost their place of refuge amid the simmering conflict. Its future safety also remains in jeopardy.
MP Layla Moran and religious leaders continue urging Israel to guarantee sanctuary and protection for Gaza’s remaining Christians, though Israeli officials have issued no formal response.
For the traumatized Christian community, the grief persists while they await restoration of their spiritual home and assurance that they may practice their faith without similar tragedy.
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