Fears mount for Gaza's tiny Christian community after mom and daughter shot dead

TEL AVIV — The fatal shooting of a mother and daughter in Gaza’s only Catholic church over the weekend highlights the pressure Christians in the enclave are under, with fears mounting that their tiny population could be wiped out during the war. 

In the weeks since Israel launched its military offensive in Gaza after Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attack, many members of the enclave’s ancient Christian community of some 1,000 sought refuge in two church complexes in the north: the St. Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church and the nearby Catholic Holy Family Church.

On Saturday, a mother and her adult daughter were shot dead while walking inside the grounds of the Holy Family Church, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Catholic regional body whose territory formally includes Cyprus, Jordan, Israel and Palestinian territories, said in a statement.

“They were shot in cold blood,” the patriarchate said of Nahida Anton and her daughter, Samar Anton, blaming an Israel Defense Forces sniper. “One was killed as she tried to carry the other to safety,” while at least seven others were shot and wounded as they tried to “protect others inside the church compound,” it said. 

Nahida Boulos Anton and her daughter Samar Antoun were shot dead by an Israeli sniper at the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in Gaza on Dec. 16, 2023.
Nahida Boulos Anton and her daughter Samar Antoun were killed at the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in Gaza on Dec. 16, 2023.Photo via X

The patriarchate later shared photos on X showing what they told NBC News showed a heavily damaged part of the church complex. Fire can be seen still burning, while much of the area is burned out. NBC News was not immediately able to independently verify the images.

Efforts to reach the Holy Family Church and its members were not immediately successful. One member identified himself as Nahida Anton’s son, but did not provide further details about the deaths of his mother and sister.

Israel has denied responsibility for the incident, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office saying that “according to an IDF investigation, this claim is not true.” It said that in that specific area Saturday, there was no fighting. 

It said there was fighting in the vicinity of a different church, adding that “the IDF has proven once again that it is loyal to truth and transparency.”

Asked by NBC News’ Gabe Gutierrez to comment on the incident, John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, said the U.S. had “raised our concerns about this particular incident with the Israeli government about the need for those who have injuries or who have been wounded, to be able to be safely evacuated so that they can receive appropriate medical treatment.”

“As I’ve said before, every civilian death is a tragedy. We’ve been very clear that we believe every effort possible must be made to prevent civilian casualties,” he said. “Unfortunately, it appears in this case, a mother and a daughter lost their lives and our prayers go out to the families who … are grieving their loved ones.” 

Palestinian Christians did not accept Israel’s denials. 

“It’s heartbreaking,” said the Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Lutheran leader based in Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus was born in what is now the occupied West Bank. 

“But, also, you know … it makes people very angry,” he told NBC News in a phone interview Monday.

Raheb, who is in regular communication with the Gazan church’s community, said Nahida Anton had simply been trying to make her way to the restroom when she was fatally shot. Samar Anton, he said, was also shot dead while trying to help her mother.

He also noted that this was not the first time that a church in Gaza had been affected by the war.

Destruction at the Latin convent of Gaza.
Destruction at the Latin convent of Gaza.Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem via X

On Oct. 21, the nearby St. Porphyrius, Gaza’s oldest Greek Orthodox church, was rocked by a deafening explosion, which killed at least 18 people, according to Palestinian health authorities in the enclave.

The IDF said at the time that its fighter jets had targeted a command and control center belonging to Hamas, but it said the church was “not the target of the strike.” 

‘It is war. It is terrorism’

Saturday’s incident drew swift condemnation from Pope Francis the following day.

“Unarmed civilians are the objects of bombings and shootings. And this happened even inside the Holy Family parish complex, where there are no terrorists, but families, children, people who are sick or disabled, nuns,” he said. “Some would say ‘It is war. It is terrorism.’ Yes, it is war. It is terrorism,” he added.

In a statement Sunday, the IDF said it had communicated with the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem early Saturday. 

The IDF added that it “only targets terrorists and terror infrastructure and does not target civilians, no matter their religion,” and accused Hamas of doing “everything to put civilians at risk — including by using civilians and holy sites as human shields for its terror activities.” NBC News has not independently verified the IDF’s claims.

In a statement, Hamas said accused the IDF of targeting “defenseless civilians,” saying it “does not differentiate between old or young, wounded or sick, Muslim or Christian.” It referenced the deaths of two Christian women in its statement.

Christian leaders in the region, meanwhile, said they did not accept the IDF’s denials.

“They can say whatever they want,” said the Rev. Munther Isaac, pastor of the Christmas Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. “The fact remains that two women, two harmless women, were shot dead in front of the church with many eyewitnesses.” 

“If Israel, you know, shot their own hostages who were raising white flags, then why should we be surprised?” he said, referring to the IDF’s announcement that it had mistakenly killed three Israeli hostages. “The Israelis are willing to shoot any moving target, even if that target was carrying white flags,” he said. 

Soldiers ‘at the gates’

The deadly shooting of Nahida and Samar Anton came after warnings of an increasingly desperate situation in the church, where hundreds of people have sought refuge amid Israel’s bombardment.

British member of Parliament Layla Moran said in a post on X on Friday that some of her relatives were among some 300 people trapped on the church’s grounds. “They are beyond desperate and terrified,” she wrote.

On Saturday, she said that her family had reported soldiers “at the gates” of the church and she said that a fire had broken out when they hit “one of the (already dysfunctional) generators.” 

Moran’s office did not immediately respond to a request for further comment. Asked to respond to Moran’s claims, the IDF referred NBC News to its initial statement. 

“We don’t know why this is happening,” Moran wrote at the time. “Are they going to be expelled from a church just days before Christmas??!”

Palestinian Christians attend a Christmas Eve mass at the Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza on December 24, 2016.
Palestinian Christians attend a Christmas Eve mass at the Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza on December 24, 2016.NurPhoto via Getty Images

Fear of being erased

Christians in Gaza represent a tiny fraction of the population, with just around 1,000 living in the enclave. The vast majority of their population is Greek Orthodox, while a much smaller share is Roman Catholic, Baptist and other Protestant denominations, according to a 2014 survey by the YMCA.

Still, they are among the oldest Christian communities in the world, dating back almost to the time of Christ, Raheb said.

And he said he fears the small community is at risk of being wiped out under Israel’s offensive.

“I believe the Christian community will not survive this atrocity,” he said. “Even those who will survive, who might survive, I’m not sure that they can live in Gaza in a place where life is unlivable.”  

Palestinian Christians arrive to attend the Palm Sunday mass at the Holy Family  Catholic church in Gaza City, on March 28, 2021.
Palestinian Christians attend the Palm Sunday mass at the Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza City, on March 28, 2021. A Christian mother and daughter were shot dead by an Israeli soldier on the grounds of the church on Saturday, Dec. 16.Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images

So far, the conflict has seen more than 18,700 people killed in Gaza, according to Palestinian health authorities in the enclave, with around 90% of the population of roughly 2.2 million displaced, according to United Nations estimates.

Around 1,200 people were killed in Israel in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, while around 240 people were taken hostage, according to Israeli officials, who say dozens remain in  captivity. Israel has vowed to continue its offensive until they are returned and Hamas is eliminated.

With at least 20 Palestinian Christians killed in the conflict, Michael Azar, an associate professor of theology and religious studies at the University of Scranton, a private Jesuit university in Scranton, Pennsylvania, said he shared Raheb’s concerns.

The Christian population in Gaza has already seen “declines over … previous moments of difficulty or turmoil or war,” he said. And now, 20 people “in a community of just 1,000 is actually a pretty high percentage,” he said.

“The fear of being erased is very real,” Azar said. “And justifiably real.”


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