Palestinian Christians And Muslims Have Lived Together In The Region For Centuries − And Several Were Killed Recently While Sheltering In The Historic Church Of Saint Porphyrius

Church of Saint Porphyrius, Gaza. (Wikipedia)


A bomb struck the complex of the historic Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza on Oct. 19, 2023, killing more than a dozen of the hundreds of Christians and Muslims taking shelter inside and wounding others.

As a historian of Roman Christianity who focuses on the Eastern Mediterranean, I am often confronted by the complexity of this region. Many Christian and Muslim families in Gaza today were displaced in 1948, after the United Nations divided this formerly Ottoman land into new Arab and Jewish states. Today’s Palestinian Christians occupy a complicated place in this contested land.

The Church of Saint Porphyrius, or Porphyry, is named for a fifth-century bishop remembered for building a church in the city and destroying the local temples to the Roman gods. The current building is a 19th-century renovation of a church European Crusaders built in the 12th century over the remains of its fifth-century predecessor, which had been converted to a mosque. While the number of Christians in Gaza dwindled to a little over a thousand in 2022, with roughly 50,000 more in the West Bank and Jerusalem, the 1922 census of the British Mandate of Palestine reported over 73,000 in this region where Christians have lived ever since Christianity began.

Gaza’s early Christians

As Jesus’ first followers spread the word about the significance of his life, death and resurrection, church communities sprang up around the Mediterranean. In the early fourth century, the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea commemorated Christians who died in the Roman persecution under Emperor Diocletian, including Christians from Gaza and their bishop, Silvanus, in his “History of Martyrs in Palestine.”

Toward the end of the fourth century, a western Christian nun named Egeria wrote a journal of her travels to Christian sites in Egypt, Mount Sinai, Roman Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia. She described stopping to see the places of biblical events and receiving the blessing of Christian monks living in each region.

Early Christianity flourished in the port city of Maiuma before spreading to the main city of Gaza, a center of Greek learning. In 325, Bishop Asclepas represented Gaza at Emperor Constantine’s famous Council of Nicaea, which established the Nicene Creed that defines the central tenets of Christian belief for most of the world’s Christians today. Twenty-first-century Palestinian Christians include a variety of communities with ties to this early history.

Christians and Muslims in medieval Gaza

In the early fifth century, the small Christian community of Gaza found a zealous leader in Bishop Porphyry, whose forceful efforts to Christianize the city are commemorated by the historical church building dedicated to his memory today.

In the decades after Bishop Porphyry’s death in 420, Christians in the eastern Mediterranean, including the Christians of Roman Palestine, were divided over politicized theological conflicts. Those came to a head in 451 at the Roman emperor’s church Council of Chalcedon, in modern-day Turkey, which defined the Son of God in two natures, one human and one divine.

Many of Roman Palestine’s neighbors in Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia rejected this council because they believed the Son of God had a single nature, at once human and divine. They are called “miaphysite” Christians, which in Greek means “one nature.”

Most Christians of Roman Palestine, however, accepted the council and remained in the imperial church of Rome and Constantinople that centuries later, in 1054, divided into Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Miaphysites, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics today all have churches in the land that was Roman Palestine.

Less than a decade after the death of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in 632, his followers governed Palestinian Christians, and as a result Arabic rather than Greek has been the first language of most of the region’s Christians for more than a thousand years.

When medieval Christian Crusaders reached Jerusalem from western Europe in 1099, they found not only the Muslims they had come to attack but also these ancient local Christian communities caught in the complex conflicts of the region.

Palestinian Christians today

Most Palestinian Christians today are Arab Christians and part of the Eastern Orthodox Church under the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. Other local Christians are miaphysites in the Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian and Armenian Orthodox churches.

Still other Christians in this region, such as Maronites, Chaldeans, Syrian Catholics, Greek Catholics and local Roman Catholics, recognize the authority of the pope and are in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. A variety of Protestant churches have also more recently arrived in the region.

While diaspora communities span the globe, including many across North and South America, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Christians continue to live in Israel, the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon, with smaller populations in Gaza and other countries in the region. Christian and Muslim communities have been neighbors in this land for over 1,300 years. And last week they sheltered and suffered together in Gaza’s St. Porphyrius Church when it was bombed.

In oversimplifying the story of the Middle East to binary categories – Muslims and Jews, right and wrong, terrorists and innocent – we lose the ability to understand the deeply layered history of this complex region. Meanwhile, the land of Gaza itself is in mourning under a thick ashen shroud.