Gaza Christians ask for peace on Palm Sunday

The Holy Family Catholic church is just a kilometre from Al-Shifa hospital, a flashpoint in fighting between Israel and Hamas (-)
The Holy Family Catholic church is just a kilometre from Al-Shifa hospital, a flashpoint in fighting between Israel and Hamas (-)

The faithful walked slowly in a procession past the stone facade of Gaza's only Catholic church on Palm Sunday, gathering to pray for peace as war raged around them.

Holy Family Church's tranquil courtyard, filled with dozens of children and older people, belied the humanitarian crisis happening beyond its gates in Gaza City.

Inside the church, worshippers in their dress clothes lined the wooden pews decorated with palm fronds for the service marking the start of Easter week.

"Our celebration of Palm Sunday is an opportunity for hope, goodness and peace for us and for the entire world," said a young man speaking from the pulpit.

"In order to renew our hearts and make them full of love, giving and peace," he said, dressed in an ankle-length red robe.

Solemn-looking altar boys in the front row listened quietly, while parishioners with drawn faces after months of war filled the other rows.

The church in northern Gaza is a short drive from Al-Shifa hospital and its neighbourhood, where heavy combat has raged between Israeli troops and Hamas fighters.

A recent UN-backed assessment said Gaza's northern area would fall into famine by May unless there was urgent action.

Heavy combat has made it particularly difficult to get emergency food aid to the some 300,000 the UN estimates are still in the area.

"This year, we don't have the heart to celebrate," Nabila Saleh, a sister at the Holy Family church told AFP.

"It's true that we decorated, but we don't feel the joy of other years."

The Gaza war was sparked by the unprecedented Hamas attack on October 7 that resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

The health ministry in Hamas-run territory said the total death toll during almost six months of war now stood at 32,226 -- most of them women and children.

- 'Really heartbreaking' -

Though Holy Family's facade, courtyard and worship area inside the church are mostly intact, the site has been deeply affected by the fighting.

Christian families from Gaza have found refuge inside and in December the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem reported two Christian women were killed by Israeli fire at the church.

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

Far from Gaza, Palestinian Christians marked Palm Sunday in Jerusalem with the fate of the people trapped by war weighing heavily upon them.

Thousands walked from Bethphage Church into the Old City, recreating Jesus's arrival during which crowds laid palm fronds at his feet.

"It is very sad," said worshipper Hanan Nasrallah, 62. "Hopefully God will bring peace to everybody and next year hopefully everybody will celebrate together."

Palestinian Christians also criticised tightened movement restrictions on those in the occupied West Bank, which they said prevented many from joining on the festivities in Jerusalem.

"Many of my friends from the West Bank, they weren't able to come," said 30-year-old Palestinian Hanna Tams, a dancer and choreographer.

"The Israeli authorities are not giving them permission," he said, calling it "really heartbreaking".

"I wish people in Gaza all the best and I wish they were safe and I wish they were here with us," he added.