As they left Saint James the Apostle church in Beit Hanina, a Palestinian neighborhood in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, the mood was tense among the Catholic parishioners.
With Israel at war with Hamas again following the militant group’s brutal strike on October 7, churchgoers decried the killings but did not hide their rage at Israel.
“I’m against killing. What Hamas did was terrible and I do not support it,” said Maria, a 21-year-old travel agent who declined to be filmed or give her full name.
“But it’s very complicated because the people in Gaza, they didn’t do anything. They are just innocent there. It’s not the country, it’s not the people that did this. It’s a group of people called Hamas that did that.”
On October 7, Hamas launched a horrific attack on southern Israel, killing more than 1,400 people and taking at least 199 prisoners back to Gaza.
According to Palestinian health officials, Israel has unleashed a barrage of bombs on the Gaza Strip since the attacks, killing at least 3,000 people.
On October 7, the leaders of the major Christian faiths in Jerusalem issued a unified statement in which they “unequivocally condemn any acts that target civilians, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or faith,” and called for “an immediate cessation of violence.”
They laid the blame for the violence on “prolonged political conflict and the lamentable absence of justice and respect for human rights.”
In his sermon at Saint James the Apostle, the priest called for peace as soon as possible.
‘Praying for Peace’
The few parishioners who were willing to appear on camera expressed similar sentiments.
“Everybody now is suffering and that’s why we are here in church. We are praying for peace and we hope that peace will come one day,” said Nakhla Bayda.
Away from the camera, however, several faithful interviewed by AFP were less diplomatic than their clergy — many argued that Israel shares the bulk of the responsibility for the current situation.
The militants of Hamas are the “creation of Israel’s unfairness,” said Rania, a dark look on her face.
“They are living in an open-air prison and are the children of terrorism from Israelis against them,” said the 50-year-old embassy employee.
“They (Israel) made them be violent… because they were suffocating them.”
Beginning in the 1980s, Israel permitted Hamas and other Islamist groups to develop in the occupied territories in an attempt to oppose the secular Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) of Yasser Arafat.
That changed in the 1990s, when Israel was attacked by a wave of lethal suicide bombings carried out by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another movement that espoused armed struggle against Israel and opposed the PLO’s peace process.
Today, Iran-backed Hamas is Israel’s number one enemy.
Fear of speaking out
Israel’s reprisals against Gaza, which have killed more than 700 children, outraged many in the congregation in Beit Hanina, but the fear of speaking out openly about the war was palpable.
“We want to express our feelings, but we can’t, because we can just lose our jobs, our lives, our parents,” said Maria.
This year, Christian leaders in Jerusalem have stated that increased Israeli restrictions, as well as animosity and violence by Jews in the holy city, put their congregations at risk.
A church source in Jerusalem voiced concern for their fellow believers who remain in Gaza, where hundreds of people have taken refuge in two churches to avoid Israeli bombing.
Local Christians, predominantly Palestinians, are caught up in the Israel-Palestinian conflict like everyone else, but they are in an especially precarious situation as a tiny religious minority among Palestinians.
According to the Latin Patriarchate, they account for little more than 2% of the Holy Land’s population.
“We are Christians, yes, and we are also Palestinians… it is our land and we feel the same as any Palestinian living here,” said Rania.
“We can’t believe what’s happening in Gaza. And it really hurts us to see that all the sympathy is only with the Israelis and not with the Palestinians.”