By Engy Magdy, Special to The Tablet
CAIRO — When a missile hit a building inside the compound of the St. Porphyrios Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza, it was the first time many in Egypt and surrounding Arab countries were aware that there are still Palestinian Christians living in Gaza.
Despite the fact that the region is commonly known as the birthplace of Christianity, Christians in Gaza and the Holy Land are often overlooked by politicians and media in local Arab countries.
However, “Christians have existed in Gaza since the first century,” the Rev. Jack Sara, the dean of Bethlehem Bible College, told the Tablet. “From there, Christianity was spread all over the world.”
While Gaza’s population of 2 million is almost totally Muslim, about 1,000 Christians currently live in Gaza, a number that is down from more than 5,000 in 2007, when Hamas took control of the Strip as many left because of economic and religious causes.
Like other Gaza citizens, Christians are in dire economic straits because of the Israeli-led blockade begun in 2007. Moreover, they face discrimination under the Islamic Hamas rule.
“In general, Christians (in Gaza) are made to feel like second-class citizens, despite their Palestinian patriotism and historical affinity to the land” according to a scholarly symposium held at the University of Notre Dame.
As one of the oldest cities in the world, situated on the Mediterranean shore and noted for its early importance as a hub for commercial traffic with Egypt, Gaza City is mentioned in both testaments of the Bible.
“Gaza is mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 8:26), in the account of Philip and the eunuch. Also, we believe that St. Mark the Apostle carried the good news of Jesus Christ to Egyptians through Gaza, the trade route leading to Egypt,” said Rev. Sara.
According to Christine Shepardson, professor of the humanities at the University of Tennessee, “early Christianity flourished in the port city of Maiuma before spreading to the main city of Gaza, a center of Greek learning. In 325, Bishop Asclepas represented Gaza at Emperor Constantine’s famous Council of Nicaea, which established the Nicene Creed, that defines the central tenets of Christian belief for most of the world’s Christians today. Twenty-first-century Palestinian Christians include a variety of communities with ties to this early history.”
The Church prospered in the 4th and 5th centuries, as Emperor Constantine the Great banned persecution of Christians by signing the Edict of Milan in 313. “At that time Gaza was a main center for Christians,” Rev. Sara said.
Gaza reached the peak of civilization in the 5th century under the rule of the Byzantine Empire. “It reached as far as England, Ireland, and Geneva. Gaza’s schools graduated leading theologians such as Barsanuphius, John of Gaza, and Mark the Deacon, whose writings profoundly influenced Christianity at its early stages,” wrote Saeb Shaath, a Middle East political expert and a former Palestinian diplomat. “The name Gaza means strength and prevalence; many layers of civilization lie beneath its busy streets,” he added.
Only three active churches are left in Gaza: the Roman Catholic Holy Family Church, the St. Porphyrios Greek Orthodox Church, and the Baptist church. There is a fourth church that is vacant.
“All churches of the Holy Land were destroyed during the Byzantine-Sasanian War (602-628) as the Persians burned everything, even the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and all the churches of Gaza, then the Crusaders rebuilt them in the 11th century,” said Rev. Sara.
St. Porphyrios Church is said to be the third oldest church in the world and the oldest in Gaza, dating back to 425. Adjoining buildings and rooms were added to the church complex over the years. Named after the bishop of Gaza from 395 to 420, St. Porphyrios Church is located in the al-Zaytun section of Gaza’s Old City. Its thick limestone walls house an elaborate interior of gilded icons and ceiling paintings.
The church’s founding dates to 407, but it became a mosque in the seventh century before a new church was built in the 12th century during the Crusades. It is believed that the body of St. Porphyrios is buried beneath the church.
Hilarion Monastery or Tell Umm al-Amer, one of the oldest monasteries in the Holy Land, is located in the central Gaza Strip. Hilarion Monastery was discovered in 1993; the site includes ruins of two churches, a burial place, and baptismal and dining halls. In addition, it features floors made of limestone, colorful mosaics decorated with various drawings tand engravings, marble tiles, as well as a chapel and monks’ rooms.
Churches in Gaza are now serving as shelters for the displaced people who had to leave their homes amid the growing war between Israel and Hamas. More than 400 displaced people are sheltered currently inside the Holy Family Catholic Church, Father Youssef Asaad told the local media.