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Radio-Canada spoke with Palestinian refugees in the only two churches open in war-ravaged Gaza City.

This Christmas, the Christians of Gaza “pray for their survival” | Middle East, the eternal conflict

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Palestinians take part in a candlelight vigil in front of St. Andrew's Church in Ramallah, West Bank, to honor victims of the war in Gaza.

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There are only 1000 left Christians in Gaza and their numbers continue to decline.

Since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas, Christians in Gaza have been forced to take refuge in the only two churches still open in the city, half of the buildings of which were destroyed in less than two months.

Thus, nearly 600 people are sheltered in the Catholic Church of the Holy Family and 400 others in the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint-Porphyry.

It was in this church that 18 people who had taken refuge there were killed on October 19 in an Israeli strike targeting an annex building belonging to the monastery , one of the oldest in the world.

The Israeli war against the Gaza Strip began on October 7 following a deadly Hamas attack on Israeli soil that left nearly 1,200 people dead, most of the civilians killed that day. The Palestinian Islamist movement also kidnapped and took around 240 people to Gaza. Around sixty of them have been released since November 24.

In retaliation, Israel promised to annihilate Hamas in the Gaza Strip by besieging and bombing this Palestinian territory. Local authorities report a death toll of 15,000, including more than 6,000 children and adolescents.

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Christian Palestinians mourn the death of relatives killed by an Israeli strike that hit a annex building to St. Porphyry Church, one of the oldest churches in Gaza, on October 20, 2023.

Middle East, the eternal conflict

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Ibrahim Amache took refuge in the Saint-Porphyre church with around twenty of his relatives from the start of the war. For this 46-year-old agricultural engineer, there has never been so much destruction in Gaza.

The Gaza Strip, a 365 square kilometer territory wedged between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean and where more than two million people live, has nevertheless experienced six wars since the electoral victory and Hamas takeover in 2006 and 2007.

In mid-October, thousands of Palestinians fled Gaza City, hoping to find refuge further south, after an evacuation call by the Israeli army. However, Mr. Amache, like hundreds of other Christians in Gaza, decided to stay in his city regardless.

There is no There is no safe place in the entire Gaza Strip, said Ibrahim Amache in a telephone interview with Radio-Canada. The situation is not safer in the south.

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This photo dates from January 7, 2023 shows the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Porphyry in Gaza, one of the oldest churches in the world.

This is the most difficult war I have had to experience. I don't know what to say, there are dead people everywhere. I lost several members of my family, cousins ​​and their children.

A quote from Ibrahim Amache, a Christian from Gaza

Sa voice is choppy, communications by telephone and Internet having become difficult since the start of the war.

He explains that since the truce came into force last Friday, we have felt a glimmer of hope.

Inside the Saint-Porphyre church, the Christians who are refugees there spend all their days together. We live in community, we cook together, we eat together… But there is not much else we can do, he says, affirming that the church still has food reserves despite the total siege imposed by Israel.

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Children take part in a religious ceremony to mark the Christmas holidays at St. Porphyry Church in Gaza, January 7, 2023.

Christians, who make up less than 0.05 percent of the Palestinian population, are mostly from the Greek Orthodox community. They celebrate Christmas on January 7 and not December 25 due to differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars.

This year, the heart is not at all celebrating, assures Mr. Amache. Even if the bombing stops, we are not going to celebrate, we are just going to pray.

We pray for an end to the war, for peace, so that people can return home.

A quote from Ibrahim Amache, a Christian from Gaza

We, the Christians of Gaza, we just want peace, he said again.

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Palestinian Christians pray for peace in the Middle East at a church in Beit Hanania, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, on October 17, 2023.

Wadih Salfiti, 43, is in the Holy Family Catholic Church with his parents, brothers, wives and children. For us, the church is our only refuge, says this employee of the Orthodox cultural center in Gaza, whose house was damaged by the bombings.

Joined by telephone, he said that he was surprised by the deadly Hamas attack on October 7 but that he did not expect such a surge of violence, such destruction. , on behalf of Israel.

According to him, in addition to the damage caused by the war, abandoned houses have now become prey to looters, especially since the start of the truce.

With the lull, people can leave the church during the day, but everyone must be back before the doors close at 4 p.m. The doors are locked for fear of theft. There are looters in town right now and we don't want them to come to us.

A quote from Wadih Salfiti, a Christian from Gaza

The houses that were not destroyed by the bombs were completely looted. There's nothing left inside, he tells Radio-Canada.

Mr. Salfiti, who was injured in the head by debris from an Israeli bombing not far from the Holy Family Church, says he has only one wish: to come out of this war alive.

This Christmas there will be no celebrations, only prayers for our survival.

A quote from Wadih Salfiti, a Christian from Gaza

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Faithful Greek Orthodox Christians celebrate Passover in St. Porphyry Church, Gaza, on April 9, 2023.

He is now considering leaving the Gaza Strip to emigrate to another country for a better future. Without a job, I cannot stay in Gaza, he says, claiming that the cultural center where he worked before the war has been completely destroyed.

About 9,000 kilometers away, in Montreal, Nada Dabbagh lives in anguish, clinging to her phone, the only way to communicate with the 50 members of her family who have taken refuge in the Greek Orthodox church of Saint-Porphyre.

Among them is his 75-year-old paternal uncle, whose house in Gaza was completely demolished. Now that he feels he has lost everything, he is also thinking of leaving, she says.

He is the only one of his siblings who never wanted to leave Gaza, this 42-year-old woman explains to Radio-Canada, specifying that her uncle has a permanent resident visa in Canada but that he has refused to leave until now because ;he does not want to abandon his son and his family who do not have a visa.

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This image shows damage to a chapel inside Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, hit by Israeli army strikes, on October 18, 2023.

We try to get them to come to Canada by all means possible, but it's quite hard, she said, calling on Justin Trudeau's government to implement a program to facilitate arrival in country of Palestinian refugees who wish to flee the war.

In 20 years, the number of Christians in the Gaza Strip, controlled by Hamas and besieged by Israel, has fallen by almost 80%, according to various estimates.

The exodus of Christians from Gaza is what Archbishop Atallah Hanna, patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, fears most.

Contacted by telephone, he explains that Christians in Gaza suffer from the same problems as their Muslim compatriots. There is no difference between Christians and Muslims here, we are all Palestinians and our roots have been anchored in this land for centuries, he told Radio-Canada.

According to him, the decline of the Christian population can be explained not only by the succession of Israeli wars against the Gaza Strip but also by the desperate economic situation and by more than 15 years of Israeli blockade.

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This photo from May 2021 shows Archbishop Atallah Hanna, patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, during a demonstration in support of the Gaza Strip.

Christians are an integral part of Palestine. We may be few in number, but we are not a minority and we refuse to be treated as a minority in our own land.

A quote from Archbishop Atallah Hanna, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem

In Palestine, Christians and Muslims live together in harmonics for centuries, he assures. We reject racism and those who exploit religion for political purposes, whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish.

As Christmas approaches, he invites churches around the world to pray for Palestine […], the cradle of Christianity.

Sans justice nor freedom, there can be no peace in the region […], and anyone with a moral conscience must not remain silent in the face of human rights violations committed in the Gaza Strip, adds- he denounced the Israeli bombings which targeted hospitals, schools and places of worship.

Finally, he urges the Canadian government to play a more active role in ending this war.

It is our dearest wish because it is the civilians and the children who pay the price price. It's tragic, it's painful and it's very sad.

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