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Anguish grows for families of Gaza’s Christians, who haven’t been spared Israel’s brutalities

Khalil Sayegh lives in the United States, and for days, he anxiously awaited news of his family who had taken refuge in Gaza churches to escape the Israel-Hamas war.

A few days before Christmas, he learned his father had died due to a lack of medical care, Sayegh said by telephone from Washington DC, where he works as a political analyst.

“I was told by a relative… who had learned it from a priest,” he said.

The news left him feeling shattered, he said, adding that he has yet to speak with other relatives stuck in Gaza, which has been under heavy Israeli bombardment since Hamas’ October 7 attacks.

Mobile and internet services, as well as electricity, have been largely disrupted in the Palestinian territory since the war broke out.

“Days go by without us having any news,” said Sayegh, 29.

“We live with fear… not knowing if they are dead or alive, if they have food and water or if they are hungry.” Sayegh’s family — his parents, two sisters, and a brother — are among the 1.9 million people the United Nations estimates have been displaced in the territory of 2.4m.

His parents and one sister took shelter at the Catholic Holy Family Church in Gaza City, while his younger brother stayed in Khan Yunis as he needed kidney dialysis.

His other sister fled to the nearby Saint Porphyrius Greek Orthodox church with her husband and two children. While there, she gave birth to a third child, a boy named Khader.

“I haven’t even seen a picture of him. All I know is that he exists,” said Sayegh.

About 7,000 Christians lived in Gaza in 2007, according to the Gaza authorities. Now they number around 1,000.

The enclave’s government says more than 20,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched air strikes and a ground offensive. Most of the dead are women and children.

It came in retaliation for Hamas’ October 7 attack that killed about 1,140 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

The war has reduced much of Gaza to rubble and put out of action most of its hospitals, particularly in the north of the territory, the United Nations says.

Food, medicine, water, and fuel are hard to come by.

‘Pray for us’

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem reported that on December 16, two Christian women were murdered by an Israeli army sniper inside the same church where Sayegh’s family was sheltering.

Pope Francis lamented the deaths, which he said happened in a church complex “where there are no terrorists but families, children, people who are sick and have disabilities.”

The Israeli army said it had “no reports of a hit on the church,” stressing it “does not target civilians, no matter their religion.”

Back in Washington, Gaza-born Sayegh said he has put on hold studies he was undertaking in the field of human rights.

“I just cannot function 100 per cent,” he said.

“The only thing that keeps me going is to talk about what is happening and to remember that the people of Gaza have no voice of their own.” Sayegh is not the only person eager for news of loved ones trapped in Gaza.

A Jerusalem-based nun, who declined to be identified, said she is only able to reach two other nuns sheltering at the Holy Family Church every three or four days.

“They say they are well and ask us to pray for them,” she said.

On Monday, they told her that water supplies were cut and that none of the displaced had been able to shower for at least two weeks.

“God be with them. Their situation is miserable.” Father Ibrahim Nino of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem said the displaced at the church have enough food, water and electricity to last them days and must be frugal.

But regardless of the difficult situation, he said, they will celebrate Christmas mass.

This year, church leaders in Jerusalem and the city council of Bethlehem — home to the Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Christ was born — decided to dampen Christmas celebrations in solidarity with Gazans.

And in a Christmas message, the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem lamented that “hope seems distant and beyond” reach for Gazans caught up in 11 weeks of deadly violence.

“Christmas should be a time of hope and celebration,” said Sayegh. But “it’s really hard to celebrate or feel any joy when Muslims and Christians are being massacred in Gaza, and innocent civilians are dying.” “I still rejoice in the fact that we know God is with us… He feels the pain of people, of all people. “

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