As the death toll in Gaza passes 8000 and Israeli forces enter a deadly “second stage” of their war with Hamas, the only Catholic church in Gaza is sheltering 700 Christian refugees despite daily demands from the Israeli military to evacuate.
Holy Family is the last remaining Catholic church in Gaza. The 700 Christians seeking shelter behind its walls account for over one half of the 1000 Christians in Gaza, a third of which are Catholic.
Led by the indomitable Sr Nabila Saleh of the Rosary Sisters of Jerusalem, among those taking refuge are 100 traumatised children, left homeless, sick, and injured from the violence.
News of the “Gaza Ark” has reached the Vatican where Pope Francis makes daily enquiries to Sr Nabila.
“Pope Francis assured us that we are in his prayers and that he knows the suffering we are enduring,” said Sr Nabila.
“We will not abandon this Christian mission, for there is literally no other safe place for these innocents to turn.
“We need medicine. Many hospitals have been destroyed. Our school has also been damaged, but we’re not leaving.
“People have nothing, not even the essentials, where would we go? To die in the street?
“There are old people here, the Missionaries of Charity are with us as well, with a group of disabled and elderly. Where can they go? We will stay with them. Pray for us, for this madness to end.”
Bernard Toutounji from Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic foundation providing relief to the church, had just returned from Lebanon and Syria when Hamas launched its terrorist attack on Israel, prompting Israel to commence ground operations in Gaza after launching an intense bombing campaign.
“Meeting women like Sr Nabilah, you sense their complete dedication to their people,” he said.
“These are their children. If this was your family in need, you’re not going just leave them when they need you. You’re going to stay till the end.
“This is their vocation. Leading these people to the Lord and leading them through their lives is what she is they are here to do.”
Supporting Sr Nabila are another six religious sisters and a Catholic priest, Fr Youssef Asaad.
“We just want peace, peace. We have had six wars in Gaza. Children only know war,” Sr Nabila lamented.
The situation for Christians worsens every day. Facilities at the Greek Orthodox church of St Porphyrios were struck by an explosion killing 18 people, including a teacher from Sr Nabila’s school, her entire family and children who had been attending the parish catechesis.
According to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, with the Rafah border crossing with Egypt opened up to 117 trucks carrying aid had entered Gaza since limited deliveries resumed on 21 October.
But it’s nowhere near enough. The UN estimates a daily convoy of 100 trucks carrying food and medicine will be required to address the dire depletion of essentials.
Sr Nabila calls on the international community to “enforce protections in Gaza for sanctuaries of refuge, such as hospitals, schools, and houses of worship.”
She urges an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to ensure the safe delivery of essential supplies to the displaced civilians.
Despite the bloodshed and devastation, within the walls of Holy Family, this small community are drawing daily on their faith and finding moments of peace.
They hold a Mass twice a day and continue to baptise children as shells fall around them.
Morale has been boosted by regular visits from a priest from the local Orthodox parish as a sign of “unity and collaboration among all Christians in the Gaza Strip.”
But it’s the daily calls from Pope Francis that offer the greatest spiritual nourishment and sustenance.
“It was a great blessing to be able to speak with him. He gave us courage and support in prayer,” said Sr Nabila.
“Our parishioners were very pleased. They know that the pope is working for peace and for the good of the Christian community in Gaza.”
So too are organisations like Aid to the Church in Need. Mr Toutounji said the families seeking shelter in the church feel blessed by the support of Catholic Christians in the West.
“They know the Christians in the West are praying for them and it means so much to them. They take it to heart,” he said.
“They know your prayers touch the hearts of their families. They know they’re blessed by their fellow Christians; all we can do is try to help.”
Those prayers will be needed more than ever as Israel steps up its occupation, with tanks and infantry entering Gaza.
“There is so much evil, so much suffering. It’s terrible. Right now, we only have God”, Sr Nabila said.