World / December 25, 2023

Will This Be the Last Christmas for Gaza’s Christian Communities?

Gaza has some of the world’s oldest Christian communities, yet Palestinian Christians say Israeli strikes put them “under threat of extinction.”

John Nichols

The Nativity scene shows baby Jesus wrapped in a keffiyeh and placed in a pile of rubble to show solidarity with the people of Gaza on December 18, 2023, in the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, the West Bank.

( Maja Hitij / Getty Images)

Christianity’s roots run deep in Gaza. While Jesus was born in the West Bank, it was in Gaza where, according to the Acts of the Apostles, in the first century AD, Philip the Evangelist instructed and baptized an official of the Ethiopian court, marking a critical moment in the spread of the faith. And it is in Gaza that some of the oldest Christian communities in the world have celebrated Christmas for more than a thousand years—Catholics on December 25 and Greek Orthodox believers during a liturgical period that begins on December 25 and extends through January 6.

This Christmas season, however, is not a time of celebration. Amid the Israeli military assault on Gaza that followed the horrific October 7 Hamas attack, the Christian communities of Gaza have suffered terrible losses. In circumstances that British parliamentarian Layla Moran, who has family sheltering in a church in Gaza, described as “beyond desperate,” the Christians of Gaza are more vulnerable than at any time in modern history.

That vulnerability, of course, must be understood as part of a broader crisis that has seen roughly 20,000 Gazans killed since Israel began its bombing. The vast majority of the dead have been Muslims, who make up 99 percent of Gaza’s population. Most of the images of the death, injury, dislocation, and sheer horror in Gaza are those of Muslim men, women, and children. Yet, while they are rarely if ever mentioned by American political leaders such as House Speaker Mike Johnson, an evangelical Christian who has been ardent supporter of Israel’s assault, Christians are woven into the fabric of Gaza. For now.

Traditional Christmas festivities have been canceled in Bethlehem and other cities on the West Bank, where most Palestinian Christians reside and where churches have chosen to forgo public celebrations in solidarity with Gaza’s Palestinians. Horror over the death toll in Gaza is deeply felt in the Palestinian enclaves of the West Bank and Jerusalem as well as in Palestinian expatriate communities globally, including those of the United States. Former US representative Justice Amash, who as a Palestinian American Republican was elected to the US Congress in 2010 and served until 2021, lost several of his relatives when Israel struck a Greek Orthodox religious compound in Gaza in November. As Christmas approached, Amash reflected that

Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy and celebration. But for Christians in Gaza—whose family members have been killed or maimed, whose homes and churches have been destroyed or badly damaged, and who suffer through sleepless nights of bombings—this Christmas will be one of great sadness and mourning. Please pray for peace and reprieve from the IDF siege that is devastating this ancient community.

Even before Israel Defense Forces targeted Gaza this fall, the Christian community was in decline. While Muslims and Christians have a long history of cohabitation in the region, the period after Hamas-aligned fundamentalists won the 2006 election in Gaza proved to be a difficult time for an already small Christian community. And the indefinite Israeli blockade of Gaza over the ensuing years was devastating for people of both faiths. Since October, however, the devastation has intensified, exponentially.

In November, Mitri Raheb, the Evangelical Lutheran pastor who founded Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, told Al Jazeera, “This community is under threat of extinction. I’m not sure if they will survive the Israeli bombing, and even if they survive, I think many of them will want to emigrate.”

The Nation Weekly

Fridays. A weekly digest of the best of our coverage.
By signing up, you confirm that you are over the age of 16 and agree to receive occasional promotional offers for programs that support The Nation’s journalism. You may unsubscribe or adjust your preferences at any time. You can read our Privacy Policy here.

There is a very real prospect, Raheb said, that within a generation, “Christianity will cease to exist in Gaza.”

Of the more than 3,000 Christians who were counted in Gaza in 2007, members of the community suggest that fewer than 1,000 remain.

Over the past two months, they have suffered catastrophic losses. On October 19, an Israeli air strike hit the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius complex in the Zaytun Quarter of the Old City of Gaza, causing the collapse of a building, leaving at least 18 dead and damaging the exterior of the ancient sanctuary. The air strike was condemned by the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Jerry Pillay, as an “unconscionable attack on a sacred compound.” Pillay called upon the world community to “enforce protections in Gaza for sanctuaries of refuge, including hospitals, schools, and houses of worship.” The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate employed sterner language, explaining that “targeting churches and affiliated institutions, in addition to the shelters they provide to protect innocent citizens, especially children and women who lost their homes as a result of the Israeli bombing of residential areas during the past 13 days, constitutes a war crime that cannot be ignored.”

Then, on December 16, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem announced that a sniper of the IDF murdered two Christian women inside the Holy Family Parish in Gaza, where the majority of Christian families has taken refuge since the start of the war. Nahida and her daughter Samar were shot and killed as they walked to the Sister’s Convent. One was killed as she tried to carry the other to safety. Seven more people were shot and wounded as they tried to protect others inside the church compound. No warning was given, no notification was provided. They were shot in cold blood inside the premises of the parish, where there are no belligerents. Israeli spokespeople denied culpability for the deaths of the two Palestinian Christian women. But Cardinal Vincent Gerald Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said the denial was “hard to believe frankly,” arguing that “the people in Gaza and the Archbishop Cardinal of Jerusalem are not given to tell lies.” He described the shootings as “a cold-blooded killing” and said “the killing of evidently vulnerable and innocent people seems to me to set back what Israel says it’s trying to achieve.” Several days later, Politico reported that the church had been “flagged to Israeli authorities for protection” as part of an October effort by Catholic Relief Services “to get a commitment from Israel to avoid targeting a number of buildings (including a convent) where its staff and civilians were sheltering.”

Pope Francis devoted a portion of his Sunday blessing on December 18 to a reflection on the incident, saying, “Unarmed civilians are the objects of bombings and shootings. And this happened even inside the Holy Family parish complex, where there are no terrorists, but families, children, people who are sick and have disabilities, sisters [nuns].” The pope continued with the observation,

Some are saying, “This is terrorism and war.” Yes, it is war, it is terrorism. That is why Scripture says that “God puts an end to war…the bow he breaks and the spear he snaps.”

The pope has been an outspoken advocate for a cease-fire, and during the Advent season leading up to Christmas, he made appeals for an end to the violence in Gaza central to his messages to the faithful. So, too, have many Protestant religious groups in the United States, which have worked with Muslim organizations and groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace to seek a cessation of hostilities, release of hostages and prisoners, and negotiations to achieve justice for Palestinians. During the week before Christmas, supporters of the group Mennonite Action showed up at the offices of members of Congress who are among America’s most prominent Christians to pray and sing and plead for peace in Gaza. The “Day of Mennonite Action for a Ceasefire” was organized by a members of small denomination with roots in the Radical Reformation of the 16th century. The Mennonite Church USA counts 62,000 members in roughly 530 congregations—yet, according to Mennonite Action, the December 19 mobilization represented “the largest coordinated Christian day of action for ceasefire since October 7.”

That statement ought to inspire deeper reflection for members of larger religious denominations that preach gospels of love and reconciliation and that speak of a duty to witness for peace.

American Muslims and Jews have taken the lead in protesting against death and destruction in Gaza—heroically speaking out, marching, facing arrest, and suffering political consequences for their passionate response to atrocities in a region. The horrors of war damage people of all faiths. Jews have died. Muslims have died. Christians have died. It follows that Jews, Muslims, and Christians should be able to find common ground in calling, loudly and unapologetically, for an end to the death, the destruction, and the lie that suggests peace cannot be achieved.

This is a season to recognize the wisdom of Pope Francis’s observations that “war is a defeat from which only weapon manufacturers profit,” and that, yes, “Peace is possible.”

John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

More from The Nation

Meir Kahane (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu (right) edited side by side.

Israel’s Far Right Finally Gets the War It Has Always Wanted Israel’s Far Right Finally Gets the War It Has Always Wanted

Billed as a response to the October 7 Hamas attack, the conflict in Gaza has increasingly become a war to eliminate all Palestinians—a longtime goal of Israel’s homegrown fascists...

James Bamford

A soldier prepares to launch a drone in Afghanistan.

The Killer Robots Are Here. It’s Time to Be Worried. The Killer Robots Are Here. It’s Time to Be Worried.

When the leading advocates of autonomous weaponry tell us to be concerned about the unintended dangers posed by their use in battle, the rest of us should be worried.

Michael T. Klare

Following an Israeli attack in Deir al-Balah, Gaza, a wounded Palestinian child receives medical attention at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital on February 20, 2024.

Aren't the Children of Gaza Worth Saving? Aren't the Children of Gaza Worth Saving?

If our answer is yes, then we have to stop sending Israel the weapons that kill them.

Charles Glass

Palestinians inspect a damaged wedding Photography studio following Israeli strikes in Gaza City on February 13, 2023.

I Was Blissfully Planning My Engagement Party. Then the Bombs Started Falling. I Was Blissfully Planning My Engagement Party. Then the Bombs Started Falling.

I had dreamed of a wedding and cute, chubby babies. But I live in Gaza. So now I just dream of surviving.

Afaf Al Najjar

Injured Palestinians, including children, are brought to Nasser Hospital to receive medical treatment following Israeli attacks in Khan Yunis, Gaza, on January 22, 2024.

Israel Has Created a Medical Apocalypse in Gaza Israel Has Created a Medical Apocalypse in Gaza

The hospital system is barely functional. Disease is running rampant. Medical workers are being kidnapped, tortured, and killed. And the world is letting it happen.

Mary Turfah

Flowers laid in homage to Alexei Navalny, next to the Russian Embassy

Russian Opposition Leader Navalny Was Brave, Authentic, Funny, Larger Than Life. Will His Movement Survive Him? Russian Opposition Leader Navalny Was Brave, Authentic, Funny, Larger Than Life. Will His Movement Survive Him?

More than a politician, he became a talisman for Russia’s liberals.

Vadim Nikitin