The Church of Saint Porphyrius has become a sanctuary for those displaced by Israeli bombing, across all faiths.
Gaza City – When an Israeli air raid destroyed Walaa Sobeh’s house and much of her neighbourhood, the Palestinian Muslim sought shelter in Gaza’s oldest church.
At the Church of Saint Porphyrius, she found not just sanctuary, but a feeling of belonging to “one family” — united by both the terror of bombs exploding around them and a hope that they could survive Israel’s attacks.
So she telephoned other relatives in north Gaza and asked them to make their way to the church, too. Sobeh and her family are among hundreds of Palestinians across different faiths who have found safety — at least for now — at the church.
At a time when the deadly Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 and Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza have sparked a surge in Islamophobia in parts of the world, the Greek Orthodox church has emerged as an emblem of a deeper identity as Palestinians.
“We are here living the day, not sure if we can make it to the night. But what eases our pain is the humble and warm spirit of everyone around,” Sobeh said. She described receiving “enormous support from the priests and other people in the church who volunteer tirelessly around the clock to help the displaced families”.
So far, the church has escaped Israeli missiles.
“The Israeli military has bombed many places of sanctuary,” said Father Elias, a priest at Saint Porphyrius, adding that he was “not sure that Israel won’t bomb the church”, even though it provides shelter for hundreds of civilians.
Israeli bombs have hit several mosques and schools sheltering people whose homes have been blown up.
Any strike on the church “would not only be an attack on religion, which is a vile deed, but also an attack on humanity”, Father Elias said. “Our humanity calls us to offer peace and warmth to everyone in need.”
A place of solace
Built between the 1150s and 1160s, and named after the 5th-century bishop of Gaza, Saint Porphyrius has provided solace for generations of Palestinians in Gaza, especially in times of fear.
And while the cries of children and those distraught by continuing to live in Gaza under Israeli bombardment now echo in a space once filled with prayers and hymns, there is hope.
Today, the church’s ancient yards and sheltered corridors offer shelter to both Muslims and Christians alike, “as war knows no religion”, Father Elias said.
‘Together as Palestinians, Muslims and Christians’
George Shabeen, a Palestinian Christian and a father of four sheltering in the church with his family, said they had nowhere else to go; their streets had been targeted by three Israeli air raids.
“Coming here saved our lives,” he told Al Jazeera. “During the night, we huddle together, Muslims and Christians, old and young, and pray for safety and peace.”
To Sobeh, the fact that families of different religions are together under the church’s roofs amid the trauma of the bombing is in itself an act of resistance.
“Israel’s purpose is to shatter our community and displace us,” she added, her voice shaking. “They might be able to kill us. But we will continue to be together as Palestinians, dead and alive, Muslims and Christians.”