(RNS) — This week my daughter’s in-laws sent us a Christmas picture of their relatives in Gaza, two beautiful young Palestinian women, Yara and Viola Amash. Both were killed when an Israeli shell hit St. Porphyrios Orthodox Church, where they had taken refuge from Israel’s military operation.
Friends said the two women, members of the tiny Palestinian Christian community in Gaza, had thought of fleeing south, like hundreds of thousands of their neighbors after Israel began its act of revenge against all Palestinians. But because they knew no one in the south, they decided to stay. They thought they would be safe in St. Porphyrios, the third-oldest church in the world.
They were not. At least 18 Palestinian Christians were crushed to death when a missile aimed at a building next door, according to the Israeli authorities, caused a wall of the church to collapse.
St. Porphyrios Orthodox Church, in the Zaytun Quarter of Gaza’s Old City, contains the tomb of its namesake, St. Porphyrios, the bishop of Gaza from 395 to 420, whom the Roman-era Christian historian Mark the Deacon credits with converting Gaza to the faith.
The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which runs the church, said many of those inside at the time were women and children and accused Israel of targeting churches. “The Patriarchate emphasizes that targeting churches and their institutions, along with the shelters they provide to protect innocent citizens … constitutes a war crime that cannot be ignored,” it said in a statement.
According to reports in The Guardian, the Israeli military said it had damaged “a wall of a church” when it hit a Hamas “command and control center” nearby, but denied intentionally targeting St. Porphyrios. The Israeli military provided a video that appeared to show a powerful missile hitting a building immediately adjacent to the church and said the incident was under review.
But the shelling of the church is in accord with the tacit green light U.S. President Joe Biden has given Israel for its onslaught on the people of Gaza and with the continuous Israeli efforts to dehumanize Palestinians as a way of justifying their attacks. The term being used now is “human animals.”
Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant has used this disgusting term, as did the Israeli army chief, Herzi Halevi, who declared, “They are human animals, and we will treat them accordingly.” This designation is not limited to Hamas and its fighters but covers all the people of Gaza, who are being equally blamed for the Oct. 7 attack. On Oct. 13, Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, said: “It is an entire nation out there that is responsible. It’s not true this rhetoric about civilians (being) not aware, not involved.”
Palestinians, including Gazans, are not Hamas, as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak when the two met in Cairo. Certainly, Christian Palestinians have nothing to do with the fundamentalist Islamic Hamas movement. So why are hospitals, churches, mosques, bakeries and homes being targeted continuously without a whisper from the so-called free world?
On Wednesday (Oct. 18), a Palestinian Catholic mother published an appeal to Biden, calling on the Catholic president to base his policies on his moral beliefs. “We are not children of a lesser God, Mr. President, we are the Palestinian Christians of the holy land where the message of love peace and justice started, and we call upon you to stop this Genocide.”
What is most disheartening is that we have yet to hear a strong moral call for an end to the assault on human beings made in the likeness of God. We are hearing more from Jewish people, such as Jewish Voices for Peace, demanding a cease-fire than we are hearing from Christian leaders. On Friday, Palestinian Christians sent an open letter to Western church leaders and theologians, a “call for repentance” that has garnered thousands of signatures and is being circulated around the world.
The letter vowed that Palestinian Christians will “continue to be steadfast in our hope, resilient in our witness, and continue to be committed to the Gospel of faith, hope, and love, in the face of tyranny and darkness.”
It concludes with a quote from the 2009 Kairos Palestine document: “In the absence of all hope, we cry out our cry of hope. We believe in God, good and just. We believe that God’s goodness will finally triumph over the evil of hate and death that still persist in our land. We will see here ‘a new land’ and ‘a new human being,’ capable of rising up in the spirit to love each one of his or her brothers and sisters.”
(Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian Christian journalist in Amman, is a former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on X @daoudkuttab and on Threads @daoud.kuttab. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)