Gaza City – Ibrahim Jahsan’s young family has been sheltering at the Saint Porphyrius Church in Gaza City since the war began.
One of Gaza’s 1,000 Christians, Jahsan never doubted the church was a safe space for him, his pregnant wife and two children aged five and six. The Greek Orthodox church – the oldest in the city, located in the Zaytoun neighbourhood – has traditionally served as a sanctuary for both Christians and Muslims during Israel’s periodic wars against Gaza.
The church was sheltering hundreds of people when an Israeli bomb severely damaged one of the four buildings in its compound on Thursday evening, causing its ceiling to collapse and leaving dozens trapped under slabs of concrete, according to witnesses.
By Friday afternoon, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem told Al Jazeera at least 18 people were confirmed to have been killed, including several children.
‘We thought we would be protected’
“The building that they bombed is beside the church,” said Jahsan, still shaken from what he says was a massive blast. “We just pray to god to end this war.”
About 200 children, women, elderly and sick people were taking shelter at the church when Israeli warplanes targeted the building with two raids, said Ibrahim Al-Souri, another survivor who had also been taking shelter.
“We thought we would be protected by the church but unfortunately the brutal Israeli occupation does not differentiate,” he said. “They have targeted churches, mosques and hospitals. There is no safe place.”
Al-Souri called on free people around the world to pressure their governments to stop the bloodshed against Palestinians.
“We know that the world leaders are against us, but as [former PLO leader] Yasser Arafat said, we are a mighty people. And this is the price we have to pay,” he said.
According to Father Issa Musleh of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Bethlehem, the building that collapsed was part of the church’s compound. Dozens were found to have been injured as rescue efforts were still under way on Friday to find victims trapped under the rubble.
“One lady is waiting for her three kids to be pulled out of the rubble,” said another witness at the church, who did not want to give Al Jazeera his real name. “It’s something you can’t really imagine, you can’t really explain.”
An Orthodox Christian, he said he had sought refuge at the church after the war began, thinking it was a safe place. He remained there despite Israel’s order for residents of Gaza City to move south – where bombings have continued nonetheless.
“We didn’t flee last night because we were afraid we might be hit [on the way],” he said.
Since the war began, mosques, schools and hospitals where people have sought safety after fleeing their homes have come under fire. Just two days ago, six people were killed after an Israeli air raid hit an UNRWA school in Gaza’s al-Maghazi refugee camp. Later that day, a massive blast at the al-Ahli Arab Hospital killed hundreds more.
“People there – Muslims and Christians – they thought they’d be safe inside the [church] building,” Father Issa Musleh told Al Jazeera. “Because it’s a church, they didn’t think it would be bombed by Israel.”
One Christian, who only gave his name as Fadi, said nobody is safe in Gaza, regardless of religion.
“This message is to Biden, the president of the United States: The Christian community in Gaza is being targeted,” the 31-year-old who was born and raised in Gaza said. “No one is safe and everyone is in danger. Everyone should move to stop this.”
‘This is a war crime’: Orthodox Patriarchate
The Patriarchate has condemned the strike, but said it remains committed to providing shelter to the displaced.
“Targeting churches and their institutions, along with the shelters they provide to protect innocent citizens, especially children and women who have lost their homes due to Israeli air strikes on residential areas over the past 13 days, constitutes a war crime that cannot be ignored,” a statement read.
An Israeli army statement said the air strike had targeted a command and control centre involved in launching rockets and mortars towards Israel.
“As a result of the [Israeli army] strike, a wall of a church in the area was damaged,” it said, adding, “We are aware of reports on casualties. The incident is under review.”
Videos and photos of the incident show people, including children and elderly women, being rushed to hospital, as well as the damaged building whose first floor has completely collapsed.
At least 4,137 Palestinians have been confirmed dead as a result of Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip since the war began, including 1,524 children. Some 1,403 Israelis have been killed, mostly in an attack by Hamas on southern Israel on October 7.
“All the children are traumatised,” Ibrahim Jahsan said. “No words can describe what we are going through.” Despite the horror, he said, he will continue to shelter at the church with his family.
“We were baptised here, and we will die here.”