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19 Oct, 2023 23:31

Oldest Orthodox church in Gaza damaged by ‘Israeli strike’ – officials

The Palestinian authorities have blamed Israel for the bombing of the St. Porphyrios church
Oldest Orthodox church in Gaza damaged by ‘Israeli strike’ – officials

The oldest Christian church in Gaza was damaged in an Israeli airstrike on Thursday evening, according to the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Unconfirmed reports from the site said at least two people were killed and more buried under the rubble of the adjacent meeting hall. A follow-up report by the Gaza media office updated the death toll to at least 18.

In a statement on Friday, officials expressed the “strongest condemnation of the Israeli airstrike [on] its church compound in the city of Gaza,” and called the targeting of churches and the shelters they operate “a war crime that cannot be ignored.”

The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs blamed “occupation warplanes” for the explosion, saying Israeli aircraft bombed the church, which is located in the Zaytoun neighborhood of Gaza City. A woman and a girl died and “dozens of people” were injured, the ministry said in a post on X (formerly Twitter).

An unknown number of people are still under the rubble of the meeting hall, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Jordan said on Facebook, citing one of the parishioners.

“No sufficiently accurate information is clearly available yet, but expectations are there will be a large number of martyrs,” the Archdiocese added.

“Archbishop Alexios appears to have been located and is alive, but we don’t know if he is injured,” the Orthodox Order of St. George said in a statement, adding that they have “no word on the condition of any other of the more than 500 people being housed at the church and monastery.”

According to the Order, “bombs hit the two church halls where the refugees, including children and babies, were sleeping. Presently, survivors are searching the rubble for other casualties.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were looking into the incident. The IDF has not commented on the matter, but has previously accused Hamas of using religious shrines as cover for its operatives. 

St. Porphyrios is the oldest active church in Gaza. Originally built in the 5th century to honor the eponymous saint, the present structure was erected in the mid-1100s, during the Crusades, and renovated in the 1800s. It is located in the southern portion of Gaza City.

Conflicting reports from Gaza spoke of up to 800 Palestinians sheltering inside the church compound before the explosion. The premises are just 250 meters away from the Al-Ahli Hospital, where the Palestinians claimed hundreds had been killed and wounded in an explosion on Tuesday evening. Israel insisted that the hospital compound was hit by a rocket launched by the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad. 

When Israel launched airstrikes against Gaza in response to the deadly October 7 incursion by Hamas, there was a report that St. Porphyrios had been bombed. The church quickly released a statement calling the story fake news and reassuring everyone who inquired that everything was fine. Its Facebook page has not been updated since Tuesday.

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