Christians Search for Refuge amid Israel-Palestinian Conflict
Members of the small Christian community caught between the Israel-Gaza border are seeking refuge in bomb shelters as the Hamas-ruled Gaza strip has already experienced at least 1,000 Israeli air strikes intended for Palestinian rockets and rocket launchers.
National Catholic Register’s Michele Chabin reports that, in Israel, more than 350 Palestinian rockets have hit areas where Christians live within the last few days.
The conflict between Israel and Hamas has intensified dramatically in the past month in the wake of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens who Israel claims were killed by Hamas operatives. On July 2, the day following the funeral of the teens, a Palestinian teen was murdered, apparently by Jews seeking to avenge the deaths of the Israeli teens.
Subsequently, rockets were then launched into Israel, which, in turn, retaliated, and tensions have mounted significantly since.
According to the Register, Issa Tarazi, executive director of the Near East Council of Churches, said the airstrikes on Gaza “are affecting all Christians and Muslims; Christians suffer the same as all the other people of Gaza, the same threats and the same stress.”
Approximately 1,000 Christians live in Gaza, Tarazi added, alongside nearly two million Muslims. He noted that electricity in the area is unreliable and people “are afraid to walk around” due to the airstrikes.
“Shops are closed, governmental offices and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and the private sector are closed,” he explained, adding that many homes have been destroyed and many people have been forced to flee their homes.
Tarazi said he has asked the international community for food, medication, and medical supplies, as well as assurance that the border between Gaza and Egypt remains open. Egypt’s government has kept the border generally closed recently because it opposes Islamic fundamentalism.
Father David Neuhaus, patriarchal vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel, said Christians are suffering “even though they are not targeted for being Christians,” as is occurring elsewhere in the Middle East.
According to Judith Sudilovsky at Catholic News Service, Christians are working together to try to keep each other safe during the escalated hostilities.
Father Jorge Hernandez, an Argentine member of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, related that one night, after a bomb siren sounded, he assisted three nuns of the Sisters of Charity in evacuating 20 handicapped children from their home to his.
“We had to carry all the children in our arms,” Hernandez told Catholic News Service. “There is no space in my house, so we laid down blankets on the floor and put the children there.”
Israel states its airstrikes, which began July 8, are targeted at the homes of militants and that it provides warnings to all civilians to leave their homes prior to attacks.
Nevertheless, there are reports of some civilians climbing on the roofs of houses to act as human shields. Nearly half of the more than 100 Gazan dead are civilians, including women and children.
According to Hernandez, three Gaza neighborhoods had been warned to evacuate, but safe areas large enough for all the residents are non-existent. Instead, he said people seek safe shelter in government- and U.N.-run school buildings.
"Everything is so close there is no place for them to go," he said. "They are 100,000 people who have been told to leave, and then there is the problem of food and water for them. It is an enormous problem."
Hernandez also said that Hamas is very strong in Gaza, a fact that “makes people afraid that if the conflict continues for a long time – which it looks it will if someone does not come and stop it – there will be popular reaction against the Christians, as they have seen happen in other conflicts in the region.”
“When [the militants] see they are threatened and are going to lose, they usually go against the weaker segment of the population,” Hernandez explained.
According to the Register, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land were highly critical this week of the selective media coverage of the fighting, adding that the faces of some of the victims of the conflict “are well known because the media have covered their lives in detail…whereas others – by far more numerous – are mere statistics, nameless and faceless.”
The Catholic Ordinaries asserted the “selective coverage, mourning and memory are themselves part of the cycle of violence,” and they prayed that “those who have fallen recently will be the last to die violent deaths in this escalation of hatred and vengeance.”
The leaders also charged that those in positions of power “remain entrenched, not only unwilling to enter into any real and meaningful process of dialogue, but also pouring oil on the fire with words and acts that nurture the conflict.”