GAZA CITY: For Gaza resident Mahmoud Khalaf, it was a bizarre new experience, prostrating himself for his daily Muslim prayers beneath the gaze of an icon of Jesus Christ.
But since the war in Gaza began, he has had no choice but to worship in a Christian house of God, where he took refuge after Israeli airstrikes pummelled his neighborhood in the north of the Palestinian territory.
“They let us pray. It’s changed my view of Christians – I didn’t really know any before, but they’ve become our brothers,” said Khalaf, 27, who admitted he never expected to perform his evening prayers in a church.
“We [Muslims] prayed all together last night,” he said. “Here, the love between Muslims and Christians has grown.”
Walking into the Saint Porphyrius Church courtyard in Gaza City, visitors are greeted with a “marhaba” by Christian helpers, but with a decidedly more Islamic “as salam ou aleikom” (peace be upon you) by most of its current residents – displaced Gazans who have made it their shelter for almost two weeks.
Khalaf, who fled his home in Shaaf after the area became a target for Israeli warplanes, twirls his prayer beads anxiously, but is relieved to have found sanctuary alongside some 500 other displaced Muslims.
“The Christians took us in. We thank them for that, for standing by our side,” he said.
Khalaf has now grown accustomed to worshipping on the premises of an alien religion – a particularly acute contrast during the fast of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Every day he faces Mecca, whispers Qoranic passages and prostrates himself, as he would in a mosque.
Pastors and parishioners have been respectful to their Muslim guests during Ramadan.
“The Christians aren’t fasting of course, but they’re deliberately avoiding eating in front of us during the day. They don’t smoke or drink around us,” Khalaf says.
But he admits it has been difficult to concentrate on religious piety during the bloody and indiscriminate conflict that has killed more than 1,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians.
“I’m normally an observant Muslim, but I’ve been smoking during Ramadan. I’m not fasting – I’m too scared and tense from the war.”
Ramadan will come to an end Monday with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, but with ongoing bombardments, hundreds dead and thousands homeless, the normally joyous affair is set to be rather muted.
“Christians and Muslims might celebrate Eid together here,” said Sabreen al-Ziyara, a Muslim woman who has worked at the church for 10 years as a cleaner.
“But this year it’s not the Feast of Breaking the Fast [Eid al-Fitr] – it’s the feast of martyrs,” she said, in respectful reference to the dead.
It is a harmonious and tolerant atmosphere, but in the middle of a battleground, tension is still felt.
As food provisions arrive, scuffles nearly break out when women and children lunge for the plastic bags containing bread and water, distributed in as orderly a fashion as possible by church helpers.
A pitched argument between the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Alexios and a local helper, apparently over who is allowed to enter the premises, heats up against a cacophony of loud explosions a short distance away.
The adjacent church cemetery was hit by mortar shells Tuesday, with shrapnel peppering surrounding buildings.
The bombs do not discriminate – the Muslim cemetery opposite was also hit by a separate shell.
Gaza’s Christians have dwindled in number to around 1,500 out of a predominantly Sunni population of 1.7 million.
The Christian community, like elsewhere in the Middle East, has been shrinking due to both conflict and unemployment.
But the sheer terror of this shared experience appears to have fostered the feeling of brotherhood.
“Jesus said, love your neighbor, not just your family but your colleague, your classmate – Muslim, Shiite, Hindu, Jewish,” Christian volunteer Tawfiq Khader said.
“We open our doors to all people.”