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Church leaders say Israeli troops killed 2 women and injured 7 others at parish

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

And now an incident that highlights the dangers to the tiny Palestinian Christian community in Gaza. The Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem says Israeli troops killed two women and wounded seven others at Holy Family Parish. Israel denies this. Holy Family is one of just two churches in Gaza. Both are crowded with people seeking shelter. NPR's Jason DeRose reports from Tel Aviv.

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: Last Saturday afternoon in Jerusalem, Bishop William Shomali received a barrage of text messages from Gaza describing a gruesome scene at Holy Family Parish. Seventy-year-old Nahida Khalil Anton and her 50-year-old daughter, Samar Kamal Anton, were shot and killed while walking between buildings.

WILLIAM SHOMALI: So the mother fell down, and her daughter came to help her. And the daughter also was killed by the same sniper.

DEROSE: About 500 Palestinian Christians, as well as some Muslims, are sheltering at the church compound.

SHOMALI: And this caused panic in the hearts of everyone because they said, if we walk in the courtyard, we will be killed.

DEROSE: The shootings even got the attention of Pope Francis, who spoke out, saying there are no terrorists at Holy Family, but rather children, sick and disabled people and nuns. He called the shootings terrorism, though he didn't name anyone as responsible. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem says Israeli snipers killed the women, but it's not been able to explain how it knows that, other than to say the church has lived in peace with Hamas for decades. Israel says it was not responsible.

TAL HEINRICH: Our forces regard any such claims in utmost seriousness because we're talking about holy places here.

DEROSE: Tal Heinrich is a spokesperson for the Israeli Prime Minister's office.

HEINRICH: We do not target civilians. Full stop here. We don't want to see civilians being caught in the crossfire, and we are doing the utmost efforts to guarantee that this doesn't happen.

DEROSE: But the Israeli military says there was fighting near the church, and Gaza health officials say Israeli attacks have killed thousands of women and children.

FIFI SABA: My immediate family and my extended family, they're all in the Holy Family Catholic church hiding, sheltering from the bombs.

DEROSE: Fifi Saba was raised in Gaza but now lives in the D.C. area. She says constant worry is leaving her sleepless, stressed and unspeakably sad.

SABA: We hear from them once every few days if we're lucky. And most of the time, it's either a text message or a phone call. But that phone call is like half a minute. If we're not able to get through the phone, we get a message literally saying we're alive - and that's it.

DEROSE: Saba left home nearly two decades ago and says the violence has left her heartsick.

SABA: It really hurts me to know that my people are not even able to celebrate Christmas. I'm not celebrating Christmas - I am not. I can't.

SHOMALI: This war is not God made. It is handmade.

DEROSE: Again, Bishop William Shomali.

SHOMALI: The Lord didn't give an order to Hamas to attack on the 7 of October, and they didn't give an order to Israelis to have a disproportionate answer. We condemn the action and the reaction, both of them.

DEROSE: Only about a thousand Christians live in Gaza. Those who aren't taking refuge at Holy Family are sheltering at St. Porphyrius Orthodox Church, which was badly damaged by Israeli airstrikes in October. Shomali fears this war could mean the total destruction of the tiny Christian community in Gaza. It's a bleak thought as he sits down to write the sermon he'll deliver at Midnight Mass.

SHOMALI: We don't have peace with God if we don't have peace with my brother or sister or even my enemy. So reconciliation is a must to be preached on Christmas Day.

DEROSE: A gift he hopes arrives in time for those seeking refuge at Holy Family Parish. Jason DeRose, NPR News, Tel Aviv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.