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Humans of Gaza: Yara and Viola, members of Gaza’s Christian community

By Humaira Ahad

With Christmas around the corner, Yara and Viola, cousins and members of the Amash family, would have been busy decorating their houses, buying clothes for their children and gifts for their extended family and Muslim neighbors.

After all, Christmas is a much-anticipated festive occasion for the oldest Christian community in the world, living in the besieged Gaza Strip.

In photos from last Christmas, the two young women could be seen posing in front of festive lights, not knowing it would be their last Christmas.

Yara and Viola were killed after the Israeli regime warplanes pounded St. Porphyrios Orthodox Church in northern Gaza, where they had taken refuge amid the indiscriminate bombings on the territory.

On the evening of October 19, hundreds of Christians and Muslims were inside the church when an airstrike razed down part of it, crushing at least 18 people to death. 

Yara and Viola happened to be the cousins of Justin Amash, a former Palestinian-American congressman who expressed his loss over losing family members in a poignant post on X.

“I was really worried about this. With great sadness, I have now confirmed that several of my relatives … were killed at Saint Porphyrius Orthodox Church in Gaza, where they had been sheltering, when part of the complex was destroyed as the result of an Israeli airstrike,” he wrote.

The two women, members of the Palestinian Christian community in Gaza, had thought of fleeing to the south like many of their neighbors after Israel started bombing the besieged strip.

But they had no acquaintances there, so they decided to stay in the north despite the deadly blitz. The two young women believed that the third-oldest church in the world was a safe sanctuary.

However, little did they realize there was no safe place in Gaza, the world's largest concentration camp, which has now been turned into a big cemetery since October 7.

The church authority that runs Saint Porphyrius, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said many of those inside at the time of the Israeli airstrike on October 19 were women and children.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem denounced the attack and said attacking a church as a military target when it is “providing shelter to innocent citizens is a war crime that cannot be ignored”.

The bodies of those killed, including four small children, were wrapped in white sheets and laid out in the church courtyard the next day for a mass funeral and burial.

According to Archbishop Tiberias Alexios of the Greek Orthodox Church, the bombs also struck the buildings adjacent to St. Porphyrios, where the church offices, monastery, and meeting hall were located.

The buildings collapsed from the damage, burying many of the 400 people sheltering inside.

Saint Porphyrius is situated less than 300 meters from the al-Ahli Baptist Hospital where nearly 500 people were killed when Israel launched a deadly airstrike on the medical complex on October 17.

“My heart died with my children that evening. All my children were killed: Majid, 11, Julie, 12, and Suhail, 14. I have nothing left. I should have died with my children,” Ramez al-Souri, who lost his three children and ten other relatives in the attack, said.

“We left our homes and came to stay at the church because we thought we would be protected here. We have nowhere else to go… The church was full of peaceful people, only peaceful people… There is nowhere safe in Gaza during this war. Bombardment’s everywhere, day and night. Every day, more and more civilians are killed. We pray for peace, but our hearts are broken.”

The Christian community of Palestine has also been at the receiving end of the occupying entity’s aggression. Several assaults on churches have been reported in the past two months.

With only 800 to 1,000 Christians remaining in Gaza, the community is staring at the possible extinction, warn human rights advocates.

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