The oldest church in Gaza has been conducting emergency baptisms for babies and anyone else who requests it, including a mass baptism of nine children last Sunday. They’ve taken place at the 900-year-old Saint Porphyrios Greek Orthodox Church where Christian parents and priests wanted children to be baptised in case they died because of the war between Israel and Hamas.
It followed last week’s death of four unbaptised babies whose families were sheltering in one the church’s building when it was hit by an airstrike targeting a nearby Hamas hideout. A church spokesman told the World Council of Churches that the tragedy prompted pleas from parents who wanted their babies to die as Christians, if they became casualties of the war.
“This was a painful decision, but we had no choice. Parents baptise their children in the hope for life and the future, but we baptise our children in the fear that something bad may happen. We are in the middle of war, and anything can happen,” he explained. Brendan Metcalfe from Friends of the Holy Land told Premier Christian News that church leaders basically baptised everybody who was not baptised.
“There was a bittersweet joy to it. We disconnected from the external situation for a moment and congratulated each other. It was unique and strange,” said ‘Fadi’, a Palestinian Christian father whose daughter was baptised. “We initially came to the church because we thought that dying with people who are close to us is a form of mercy. We were asked to leave to the south, but we are a small community of 900 people, and we don’t know where to go in the south,” said ‘Fadi’. Hundreds of Christians and Muslims had been offered refuge in the church compound.
“We used to feel safe inside the church. We thought that we were safe. It still feels like a nightmare,” he told The New Arab, adding that after the recent airstrike attack, some had fled in desperate search of a safer refuge. ‘Fadi’ described how most Christians in Gaza prefer to “stay away from politics” and the church bombing had come as a shock to everyone.
“I think it’ll only be after the war, I mean, if we’re still alive, that we’ll feel the pain of this. We’ll then begin to realise who died, what it was like to pull out dead bodies of loved ones from under the rubble, and how it felt to make lists of all our names so that we know who died by crossing out their names when we can’t find them among those who survived,” he said.
The Greek Orthodox church was originally built between the 1150s and 1160s and named after the 5th-century bishop of Gaza, Saint Porphyrius. Al-Jazeera reports it has provided solace for generations of Palestinians in Gaza, especially in times of war, turmoil and fear.
Mr. Metcalfe revealed that about 100 people who were wounded in the Orthodox church airstrike had been moved to the Holy Family Church which is the sole surviving Catholic church in Gaza. Nuns from Mother Teresa’s Sisters and The Sisters of the Rosary are refusing to leave to care for the sick, the elderly, the homeless and people with disabilities. Its population has doubled in the past two weeks to around 1,000. Friends of the Holy Land is helping to provide aid to both Christian compounds.
The Christian population in Gaza has declined significantly this century. In 2007, there were around 7,000 Palestinian Christians, but following a mass exodus amid regular Israeli airstrikes targeting the territory’s Hamas rulers, fewer than 1,000 now remain.
“The only problem is the war. We have no problem inside the Gaza Strip as a minority. We are one community, we’re living in the same place, sleeping in the same place, and our main problem is how to save our resources to survive the blockade that is leaving us deprived of food, water and electricity,” ‘Fadi’ said.