Greek Orthodox church in Gaza shelters Muslims fleeing Israeli shelling

July 23, 2014
(Palestinians gather in the courtyard of the Saint Porfirios Christian Orthodox church, where they are taking refuge from fighting in areas around Gaza City, July 23, 2014. Israeli forces pounded multiple sites across the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, including the enclave's sole power plant, and said it was meeting stiff resistance from Hamas Islamists, as diplomats sought to end the bloodshed. Israel launched its offensive on July 8 to halt missile salvoes by Hamas Islamists, which was angered by a crackdown on its supporters in the nearby occupied West Bank and suffering economic hardship because of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly )

(Palestinians gather in the courtyard of the Saint Porfirios Christian Orthodox church, where they are taking refuge from fighting in areas around Gaza City, July 23, 2014. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly )

About 1,000 Palestinian Muslims fleeing Israeli shells devastating their Gaza neighborhood have found shelter in a building they otherwise would rarely if ever enter, the city’s 12th-century Greek Orthodox Church.

Despite its thick walls dating back to the Crusades, the Church of Saint Porphyrius was still not a very safe haven. Shortly after they arrived, Israeli aircraft bombed a nearby field, spraying shrapnel on the church and damaging graves.

But children from the Shejaia district, where some 72 Palestinians – many of them women and children – were killed during fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas militants on Sunday, were busy playing football in the yard on Tuesday.

Their mothers watched on mattresses and plastic chairs provided by the church, along with food, blankets and toys.

“We have opened the church in order to help people. This is the duty of the church and we are doing all we can to help them,” Archbishop Alexios told Reuters as the sounds of small children echoed outside his office at the church.

“At the beginning there were 600 people and today they became a thousand – mostly children and women. Some of those children are a week old,” said the head of Gaza’s Greek Orthodox minority, the largest of the Christian communities here.

Only about 1,400 Christians – Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants – live among the 1.8 million Muslims, meaning they make up 0.08 percent of the population in the crowded Gaza Strip dominated by Hamas, an Islamist group.

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