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Muslims fleeing Gaza unrest find refuge in church

Gaza's Muslims are finding shelter a rather unlikely place amid Israel's military operation – 1,000 people have found refuge in Gaza city's 12th-century Greek Orthodox church.

GAZA: As Israel's military operation in Gaza enters its third week, Palestinians continue to flee their homes in search of safety. With casualties spilling into the thousands, Gaza's Muslims are finding shelter a rather unlikely place – 1,000 people have found refuge in Gaza city's 12th-century Greek Orthodox church.

The Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza city has been a place of sanctuary for more than 800 years. Since Israel's latest military operation began three weeks ago, hundreds of Muslim families have fled their homes and sought shelter in the church.

Om Mohammed's family is one of those taking shelter in the church. Following heavy artillery shelling on her neighbourhood, she escaped to the church, along with her daughters, sons and grandchildren.

The church's bishop have welcomed them, and dozens of others, with open arms.

Om Mohammed said: “We closed the door of our home with no feeling that we will return and find our lives again. I am one of those who had nowhere to seek refuge in. If I am not here, I don’t know where I will be sitting.”

But not everyone has been feeling safe in the church. Saleema Herzallah is aware that the protection of her and her children cannot be guaranteed. Shortly after she arrived at the church, Israeli aircraft bombed a nearby field, damaging graves.

She said: “The church gives us everything, but we lack the feeling of safety. Sitting in my home is better than all this. Even if it is destroyed, I will go back and live in it.”

Saleema is one of 50,000 people who are gathered in make-shift shelters - schools and churches among them. But tens of thousands more have been trying to stay safe in their homes.

The guardian of the church, Archbishop Alexios, said he gives shelter to whoever needs it.

“This is the right way that I am helping people – to give love, to those who are coming and asking for help,” he said. “They don’t have something to eat, to drink, they don’t have something to feed their babies… and if someone comes and knocks on the door to ask for help, you have to help.”

During the month-long festival of Ramadan, Muslims have been breaking their fast at the church and praying to return to their homes in peace.

For decades, Muslims have celebrated the festivals of Christmas and Eid together. 

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