At least 16 Christians killed in Israeli airstrike on oldest active church in Gaza, death toll expected to rise

GAZA CITY — The historic Greek Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrius, Gaza’s oldest functioning church, was hit in an Israeli airstrike late on Thursday while providing shelter to hundreds of Palestinians who had been displaced by the ongoing conflict. According to religious authorities, at least 16 Christians lost their lives in the bombing, and an unspecified number were injured, as reported by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza on Friday.

The Washington Post conducted a geolocation of the strike and verified the church’s location based on a video showing individuals sifting through the debris of a damaged building in Gaza City.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem attributed the strike to Israel.

“The Patriarchate emphasizes that targeting churches and their institutions, along with the shelters they provide to protect innocent citizens, especially children and women who have lost their homes due to Israeli airstrikes on residential areas over the past thirteen days, constitutes a war crime that cannot be ignored,” read the statement.

The Order of St. George, an affiliated organization of the church, issued a statement confirming the strike. The statement also mentioned that Archbishop Alexios had been located and was alive, but his condition was uncertain. The explosion impacted “two church halls where the refugees, including children and babies, were sleeping.” The statement estimated that the death toll could reach between 150-200 people.

“One man lost his wife, daughter and granddaughter,” said Father Issa Musleh of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to The National. “Families are being erased.”

“We condemn in the strongest terms what is happening to our holy sites – the mosques and churches of Gaza,” Father Musleh added.

Contacted by AFP, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said it had hit a Hamas command and control center involved in launching rockets and mortars toward Israel. “As a result of the IDF strike, a wall of a church in the area was damaged,” it said. “We are aware of reports on casualties,” it added. “The incident is under review.”

The Church of St. Porphyrius has a historical lineage dating back to the 5th century, with the current structure erected in the 12th century. Situated in a historic quarter of the city, it is named after Saint Porphyrius, a former bishop of Gaza believed to have passed away in 420 AD. The church, characterized by sturdy walls and ornate interiors, has long served as a sanctuary and gathering place for its members, who constitute a religious minority within the Gaza Strip.