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Should Gaza’s Christians Flee South, Evacuate East, or Stay in Church Shelters?

Sick, hungry, and weary, Palestinian Christians are urged by IDF to leave the northern strip, while outside advocates debate a West Bank escape. Temporary cease-fire offers window of opportunity to decide.
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Should Gaza’s Christians Flee South, Evacuate East, or Stay in Church Shelters?
Image: Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty Images
People search buildings destroyed during airstrikes in Gaza.

Two weeks ago, two Christian women sheltering at the Catholic church in Gaza received phone calls from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The soldiers told them—and by extension the rest of their Christian community—to flee their places of shelter within five days. They must go south, like the rest of Gaza’s civilian population.

Today is Day 15, and a four-day temporary cease-fire has now been extended.

An IDF official told CT there was no specific directive given to Gazan Christians. Those who remain will not be targeted, but their safety cannot be guaranteed.

But despite the calm of the last six days, most are choosing to remain in the two largest churches that shelter Gaza’s roughly 1,000 Christians. Some believers briefly returned to their homes to gather supplies and warmer clothes, according to CT sources. Several found their homes destroyed.

Both Saint Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church and Holy Family Catholic Church are located in the north end of the strip, in its capital of Gaza City.

Under original terms of the truce, 50 Israeli hostages will be traded for 150 Palestinian prisoners. Israel stated a one-day extension is possible for every additional 10 hostages released—but that it will continue its military pursuit of Hamas once the truce expires.

Despite the danger—in fact, because of it—one Christian leader in regular contact with Christians in Gaza wants them to stay put.

“The body of Christ all over the world should work hard on maintaining, providing for, protecting, and helping the Christians inside the Gaza Strip,” Nashat Falamon, director of the Palestinian Bible Society, told CT prior to the truce. “I don’t think they should be encouraged to leave, because leaving is extremely scary and dangerous. There are no guarantees they will make it. Their protection should be our top priority.”

For Gaza’s Christian community, fleeing south had been a near-impossible demand. War is raging, fuel is scarce, and transportation networks are disabled. Sources said about 75 people have managed to evacuate on foreign passports, including the wife, children, and parents of the former pastor of Gaza Baptist Church. Others have relocated to functioning hospitals, while about 20 have died—either from an October 19 airstrike or from disease and illness.

“Our hearts are broken, and we are full of fear and sadness,” said a Palestinian Christian mother of two whose testimony was circulated by a US-based Gaza ministry. “We are peaceful Christians and reject violence from both sides. Love, as Christ taught us, is the most effective weapon for peace."

The woman, who requested anonymity in order to protect her family, lost her best friend, cousins, nieces, and nephews when an Israeli missile struck near Saint Porphyrius. She bemoaned the psychological state of her children, impacted especially by the lack of sufficient food. Sources said much of the reserve stock was damaged in the blast.

“We see death everywhere. We smell death everywhere,” she said. “[But] in the midst of sadness, pain, and heartbreak, we look at the face of Jesus Christ.”

The Palestinian Bible Society has been able to help supply the sheltering church community with food, blankets, and medication. The society has a long history in the coastal strip, and the memory of earlier tragedy worries Christians today as well.

Back in 2006, shortly after Hamas took control of Gaza, the Bible Society’s headquarters was bombed. Months later, its manager Rami Ayyad was murdered. While the Islamist movement condemned these incidents, no one was brought to justice.

The October 7 terrorist attack, Falamon noted, was 16 years to the day when Ayyad was killed.

The Bible Society has not escaped this current war either. Israeli missile fire “completely demolished” its office in early November, while two staff members have been injured. They went to the nearest hospital but were sent away because their injuries were not immediately life threatening. Currently, al-Ahli Arab hospital, which is run by the Anglican church and houses Gaza Baptist Church, is also overstrained and undersupplied.

And as the weather gets colder, the suffering increases. Sources said that when families fled their apartments six weeks ago, they came to the church in summer clothing. The need for more clothes cost one elderly woman her life.

On November 12, the church’s 84-year-old pianist Elham Farah was shot in the leg by a sniper on her roof, according to multiple sources including Hanna Massad, the former pastor of Gaza Baptist Church, who circulated a tribute to Farah via the November 20 newsletter of his Christian Mission to Gaza ministry. She had left the Holy Family Catholic church to return to her apartment to get a jacket, but bled to death as troubled neighbors were unable to reach her. As she called her niece for help, her last words were a request for prayer, according to relatives.

“In Gaza you were born,” wrote the niece, Rand Markopoulos, in tribute to Farah, “and in Gaza may you eternally be laid to rest.”

Sources report that the Latin Church has made appeals to the Patriarchate in Jerusalem, calling for Pope Francis to intervene to help make a way for Gazan Christians to reach safety. But so far, no concrete plans have been shared.

Last week, Pope Francis hosted separate delegations of Gaza Christians and the families of Jewish hostages. Mindful of their common suffering, he prayed for peace but stated—to much criticism—that “this is no longer war, this is terrorism.”

Among the delegates who met the pope was one Palestinian evangelical: Yousef Khouri, a Bethlehem Bible College (BethBC) lecturer of biblical studies and missions. He grew up in Gaza and still has his family there, though he has not been able to contact them for days. He told CT he knows of dozens of Gazan Christian families who have lost their homes as collateral damage from the war. He is also concerned that Palestinian Christians are now facing “ethnic cleansing” from the strip.

“Gazan Christians should have the freedom to choose for themselves,” said Khouri. “We cannot put ourselves in their shoes. It’s up to the people and their personal decision.”

Some say Christians will face terrorism if they go south.

“Hamas and the other terrorists will do to the Christians exactly what they did to Israeli Jews on Oct. 7,” warned Israeli-American Joel Rosenberg on November 17, citing local sources. He appealed to the IDF to grant Gaza’s Christians safe passage to the West Bank.

John Carlock, founder of Gaza Lighthouse School who lived in and traveled to the enclave for two decades, countered in an open letter at Come and See, a Nazareth-based blog for Palestinian Christians, that such alarmist rhetoric is not only inaccurate but dangerous. Gazan Christians, he said, took an informed decision to remain sheltered in the church the first day Israel issued its evacuation order. This was not from fear of Hamas, but the widespread war.

“The church is their refuge, Christ is their salvation, and they are not calling on the IDF to come to their rescue to protect them from Hamas,” Carlock wrote. “They are calling on the IDF to leave Gaza and return across their border.”

Prior to the start of the cease-fire, Rosenberg acknowledged his critics in a detailed November 19 post, as well as the conflicting viewpoints among Gazan Christians in need of “urgent prayers, aid, and a safe haven.” But he defended his proposal that the IDF evacuate Gaza Christians to the West Bank and claimed that Israeli officials were discussing it.

“I remain determined to mobilize more global prayer for my brothers and sisters in Christ in Gaza,” wrote Rosenberg. “I also remain determined to do everything I possibly can to get the Israeli government and military to focus on how best to protect Christians in Gaza.”

While sources told CT a few Gazan Christians may be open to this on a case-by-case basis—especially for family reunification or receiving medical treatment—this solution would inevitably create new complications and challenges.

For one, the West Bank has experienced a surge in violence. Since October 7, extremist Jewish settlers have killed nine Palestinians, destroyed thousands of olive trees, and forced over 900 villagers to vacate 15 communities. The area is under an almost complete lockdown, while Israeli security forces have killed over 200 Palestinians in raids seeking militant cells. And in some locations, posters with a Talmudic justification for killing Palestinians adorn road blocks: “Rise and kill first.”

It is not a safe place for anyone, Christian or Muslim, to flee to.

“Christians are part and parcel of the Palestinian people,” said Jack Sara, president of BethBC. “I doubt they want to receive special treatment. This will breach the trust, the witness, and the peace of the community, both in Gaza and the West Bank.”

That is, the peace between Muslims and Christians. Settlers cleared a protest at the historic Armenian patriarchate that challenged a contested land deal. At risk is 25 percent of their Old Jerusalem quarter, including the community hall, a garden, and five family homes.

Mitri Raheb, an Evangelical Lutheran pastor and founder of Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, said that Jewish attacks on clergy and churches have quadrupled compared to 2022. He believes the Christian presence in Gaza will not survive this generation.

Munther Isaac is equally pessimistic—and angry.

“The tragedy is that this war, which was supported by many evangelicals, will almost certainly bring an end to the Christian presence in Gaza,” said the BethBC academic dean, an Evangelical Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem.

“As Palestinian Christians, we have always lamented the total disregard from Western Christians to our plight and challenges, often dismissing them in their support of Israel,” said Isaac. “We are now wondering if Western Christians actually prefer that the Holy Land will no longer have a Christian presence.”

This week, BethBC leaders Sara and Isaac traveled to Washington DC to plead their case to American lawmakers, asking for a ceasefire. They and other Palestinian Christian leaders ask fellow believers to be equally concerned for innocent Muslim lives.

Meanwhile, sources told CT that several Christian families in Gaza have applied and been approved for visas offered by Australia to escape the war. Yet they are still trying to arrange safe travel plans before they leave the church shelters.

While any scenario of moving Gazan Christians—be that to Southern Gaza, the West Bank, or their historic homes in modern Israel today—would likely be framed as temporary, each outcome would likely become permanent. Palestinians remember the wars of 1948 and 1967 too clearly be convinced otherwise.

No matter what happens, the coming days will be decisive for Gazan Christians.

Falamon said that Israeli policy toward Gaza has done little to make the nation safer, and the blockade on the strip—implemented since 2007—did not prevent the entry of weapons and rockets. The only solution, he believes, is to give the Palestinian people hope and dignity.

In the meantime, he prays for a spiritual “Iron Dome” to cover the remaining Christians of Gaza. For if they can remain, God has a special purpose for them.

“They are the salt and the small light in this dark place,” Falamon said. “We need to make every effort to help them stay there, to change the taste of this very dark place.”

Additional reporting by Jayson Casper.

[ This article is also available in العربية and Türkçe. ]

May/June
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