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Israel hits Gaza church while targeting Hamas site, dozens reported dead

St. Porphyrios Greek Orthodox Church is one of only three Christian churches in Gaza City. Christians are taking refuge there as the Hamas-Israel conflict escalates. Photo from Facebook

GAZA CITY, Gaza (BP) — Israel’s military hit the historic St. Porphyrios Greek Orthodox Church late Oct. 19 in an air strike on a nearby Hamas command center, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) told news outlets including Reuters, one of the earliest to report the tragedy.

At least 40 were killed, including 19 Christians, and others were injured, according to preliminary reports cited by International Christian Concern (ICC).

“As a result of the IDF. strike, a wall of a church in the area of the center was damaged,” admitted the IDF in an emailed statement to the New York Times Oct. 20. “We are aware of reports on casualties. The incident is under review. The I.D.F. can unequivocally state that the church was not the target of the strike.”

In other reports from Israel, Hamas released two American hostages Oct. 20 — a mother and daughter kidnapped Oct. 7 from the Kibbutz Nahal Oz community. Released were Judith Tai Raanan and Natalie Shoshana Raanan of Evanston, Ill., the Times said, citing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office. As many as 200 hostages are feared held after Hamas sparked the war with a surprise attack on Israel Oct. 7.

“The IDF did not target the church,” All Arab News quoted IDF Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus. “The church was unfortunately hit by the blast, since the target was relatively close to the church.”

The air strike occurred a day after Baptist Press quoted an ICC representative saying he feared such collateral damage of the Israel-Hamas war. Earlier, Israel told anonymous sources it would work to protect two Gaza churches that are sheltering about 800 Christians and other area residents, ICC reported.

“There’s a very high likelihood of the Christian places getting hit as the conflict continues, in some way, whether it be politicized or not,” Joseph Daniel, ICC’s regional manager for the Middle East and North Africa, said Oct. 18. 

“I have very little confidence (of the Christians’ safety) and a lot of fear that something like this would happen. That, just like it happened at the hospital, that a church or that Christians would be affected,” Daniel said.

St. Porphyrios Church, dating to the 5th century, was housing at least 500 Christians and other residents, ICC has said, when it was struck by Israeli fire. Reports of damage vary, with ICC saying the strike destroyed the church’s assembly hall. Several buildings are included in the church compound run by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Shortly after the strike, the Patriarchate released a statement saying it “remain(s) committed to fulfilling its religious and moral duty in providing assistance, support, and refuge to those in need, amidst continuous Israeli demands to evacuate these institutions of civilians and the pressures exerted on the churches in this regard,” reads the statement as quoted by ICC.

“The Patriarchate stresses that it will not abandon its religious and humanitarian duty, rooted in its Christian values, to provide all that is necessary in times of war and peace alike.”

The Holy Family Roman Catholic Church is also sheltering civilians including Christians. None are sheltering at the local Baptist church that is not officially recognized as a church, ICC has said.

Regarding the release of two American hostages, Hamas spokesperson Abu Ubaida cited “humanitarian reasons” for releasing the hostages in response to Qatari mediation efforts, Reuters said.