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Churchgoers dedicate prayers to Palestinian Christians who died in airstrike

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Today, across Gaza and the West Bank, Christians dedicated their Sunday services to the victims of an airstrike that damaged an Orthodox church compound in Gaza. Palestinian officials say the strike killed at least 18 people. For the small but tight-knit community of Palestinian Christians, it is a devastating loss. NPR's Becky Sullivan reports from Jerusalem.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: There are few places as sacred to Christianity as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre here in the Old City of Jerusalem. The church is said to stand on the spot where Jesus was crucified and laid to rest, then rose again. The churchgoers here today, people who live in Jerusalem, like Louisa Varaklas, said they were dedicating their prayers to their fellow Christians who died Thursday in the airstrike in Gaza.

LOUISA VARAKLAS: I mean, people in church being killed, it's devastating. It's something that you cannot conceive.

SULLIVAN: There are only about a thousand Christians in Gaza, and many attend the Church of Saint Porphyrius. It's the old of (ph) active church in Gaza, built back in the 12th century by the Crusaders. In recent years, the church has been used as a shelter in times of conflict between Israel and militants in Gaza, like in these last couple weeks, as Israeli airstrikes have hammered Gaza in retaliation for a wave of brutal Hamas attacks on Israelis.

KAMEL AYYAD: (Speaking Arabic).

SULLIVAN: I reached Kamel Ayyad in Gaza. He's a Palestinian Christian who lives right by the church. In total, he says, more than 400 people were staying there last Thursday evening.

AYYAD: (Speaking Arabic).

SULLIVAN: Ayyad was at home with his young daughters, he says, when he heard a first rocket, then a second hit the church office building. Word spread fast, and the small Palestinian Christian community rushed to help pull people out of the office building's rubble. Elyas al-Jeldah was among those helping.

ELYAS AL-JELDAH: (Speaking Arabic).

SULLIVAN: He says it was very painful to hear people yell, my mother is inside, my son is inside, my sister is inside. People were frantic and so scared, he says. The Israel Defense Forces say their target was a building right by the church that they say was being used by Hamas as a command center to launch rockets at Israel. The church sanctuary itself was not struck. Palestinian officials say 18 people died in the airstrike, 17 of them Christian. That's almost 2% of the entire Christian population in Gaza.

AL-JELDAH: (Speaking Arabic).

SULLIVAN: "Those of us who are left are just trying to stay alive," al-Jeldah says. At another church, this one near Bethlehem, hours after Sunday service had come to an end, one family was still grieving. We spoke to Basheer, who asked NPR not to use his last name out of concern for his family's safety. His wife's sister was one of the hundreds who had sought shelter at the Church of Saint Porphyrius, he said.

BASHEER: She was in a panic state, and she could not really stay at home because it was danger. And she insisted to go to the church where it's a safe place. It's supposed to be safe. Nobody can touch it.

SULLIVAN: But she and her grandchild, just 6 months old, were both killed. They thought they were escaping death, Basheer says, but it found them anyway.

BASHEER: Maybe she chose the right place to be as a Christian, as, you know, a believer, beside Jesus Christ. That's it.

SULLIVAN: Every Palestinian, Christian or Muslim, is feeling the same, he says. There is no hope.

BASHEER: This is really our way of living, really. It's all tragedies, all sadness.

SULLIVAN: Most of the Saint Porphyrius compound is still standing. And despite Thursday's strike, there are still hundreds of people taking shelter there. The Christians in Gaza say they don't have anywhere else to go.

Becky Sullivan, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.