Sister Nabila Saleh is a petite, warm woman with an impish sense of humor. We first met at Mass on a sunny November day in Gaza two years ago, and over a coffee afterward she told me about her life as a nun with the Holy Rosary order, running a primary school and charitable projects in the Strip. Since the war broke out, in October of last year, her home, the small compound of the Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza City, has become a refuge for hundreds of the displaced.
As the city around it became a wasteland, the church remained, remarkably, untouched. That changed on December 16th, when the church came under attack by Israeli forces, killing two women, and injuring seven, and shattering the illusion that any place in Gaza could be safe.
On December 17th, Sister Nabila replied to my message, saying, “We aren’t OK because they shot two women in front of my eyes.”
The church is situated in the neighborhood of Rimal, in Gaza City, and its name reflects the immense spiritual meaning of Gaza for Christians, which was noted in the Bible as a stop for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on their journey to and from Egypt. Gaza was once home to a thriving Christian community, but a count this year found just a hundred and thirty-five Catholics there, among a thousand and seventeen Christians.
Having sheltered people during previous conflicts, the church had some stockpiled supplies, which it was able to replenish during the temporary ceasefire in November. But now supplies were dwindling. Cornelia Sage, of Catholic Relief Services, said that her organization had been able to provide some humanitarian relief to Gazans in the south, but convoys attempting to reach the north have no assurances for their safety, after Israeli forces shot at a U.N. convoy in late December.
Rami, a social worker sheltering in the church, told me in late December that rations were getting smaller to save food. On Christmas Eve he sent a picture of himself at Mass, and he looked markedly thinner. He said that since the start of the war, he’s lost about thirty pounds.
Despite the shrinking rations, the church compound seemed relatively safe. In early October, diplomats from some Western countries had noted to Israeli military liaisons that the Holy Family church was sheltering civilians who could not evacuate to the south.
The church had taken in almost three hundred people, most of them Christian. Sister Nabila said that, for hours, they looked on as their bodies remained in the courtyard, fearing that any movement would provoke more bullets.
Finally, right before Christmas, the fighting in the neighborhood seemed to have quieted, and the church felt that it was safe enough to drive the injured to Al-Ahli Hospital nearby. The ride was nerve-racking and the hospital was chaotic, according to Edward Anton, a former colleague of mine at Doctors Without Borders who is staying at the church. He attended Christmas Eve Mass in a wheelchair.