GAZA: “I am heartbroken”, Sister Nabila about the bombing of her school

The plight and suffering of the Christian community in Gaza intensify every day

One month after the beginning of the current war in the Holy Land, the consequences for the small Christian community in Gaza can be described as terrible. According to a project partner of the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) who is responsible for the Gaza Strip, at least 53 Christian families’ houses have been completely destroyed, and most of the buildings belonging to Christian institutions have been damaged by airstrikes.

The Rosary Sisters School in Gaza after bombing
The Rosary Sisters School in Gaza after bombing

Particularly disheartening was the loss of the Catholic school of the Holy Rosary’ Sisters, an institution which had become a symbol of both the Christian presence in Gaza and the Latin Catholic Church’s work in the field of education.

The school is located in the Tal Al Hawa neighbourhood, one of the three areas of Gaza where most of the Christian population lived, and which has been badly affected by airstrikes over the past two weeks.

On Saturday, 4 November, Sister Nabila Saleh, a sister of the Holy Rosary who was principal of the school, received the sad news that the building had been hit. “I am heartbroken”, Sister Nabila told ACN in a text message. The large outdoor playground was damaged, as was nearby infrastructure, one of the buildings collapsed.

A few days later she was able to make a brief visit to the spot and take some pictures of the destruction, that she shared with the charity, which had recently approved an aid project for the school, but which for obvious reasons will no longer go ahead. “Everything is ruined. It is very sad”, she said.

Fortunately, the buildings had been evacuated by the sisters a few days after the beginning of the war. Since then, the Holy Rosary’ sisters, two in number, have been residing in the Parish of the Holy Family, in another neighbourhood of Gaza City, where there is a church, a convent and a small school.

They are helping five other religious sisters and a priest care for 750 displaced Christians, including 100 children and 70 people with special needs. “The guard who looked after the school had also left a few days before the bombings. Some of the students are here with us, and as far as we know nobody was killed, thank God”, Sister Nabila confirmed.

The sisters’ mission: Empowering Christians in Gaza

The school operated by the Holy Rosary’ Sisters was a beacon of hope for the community in Gaza. Founded in the year 2000, it began with 160 students, but by 2023 it was already providing education to 1,250 students, both Christian and Muslim. It was one of the largest schools in Gaza which offers high quality education for poor communities.

In a previous interview with ACN, before the beginning of this latest conflict, Sister Nabila had explained that “our presence here is both a challenge and a service, because the number of Christians is very small. There are many obstacles, but our duty is to serve the whole community, without distinction. Our main goal is to empower Christians in their homeland. It is very important to us to serve in the field of education for the young”.

19 places of worship attacked

Another emblematic Christian building that has sustained damage is the Orthodox Cultural Centre. “The centre, which was built after 12 years of hard work, was totally destroyed”, said an ACN project partner related to the Latin Patriarchate. There is also fear that the St Thomas Aquinas Catholic Centre, which is also located in the Tal Al Hawa neighbourhood, may have been damaged by airstrikes, although this has not yet been confirmed. “It is too dangerous to go and check on it at the moment”, ACN’s local source said.

Sr. Nabila with pupils on the schoolyard
Sr. Nabila with pupils on the schoolyard

According to a statement released by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, 19 places of worship, including mosques and churches, were attacked in Gaza during the first three weeks of this devastating conflict. “In times of crisis and adversity, we turn to the words of Psalms 34:18, which remind us that ‘The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.’ We pray for peace, justice, and a swift end to the suffering in Gaza”, the Patriarchate said in its statement.

“We cannot abandon the people”.

Despite the order for all civilians in Gaza to evacuate to the south, Sister Nabila again stressed her decision to remain with the community in the parish until the end. With the children, the elderly, people with disabilities and the sick in their care, it would be logistically impossible for them to move, she said. “We will not go and leave our people. We are here to accompany them, we cannot possibly abandon them”, she reconfirmed in her latest contacts with the foundation. Since Tuesday evening, 7 November, the charity has lost contact with Sister Nabila.

Sister Nabila with a group of little pupils
Sister Nabila with a group of little pupils

The majority of the Christians who remain in Gaza are sheltering in the Latin parish of the Holy Family or in the Orthodox Church of St Porphyrius. According to ACN’s sources related to the Latin Patriarchate, they only have enough supplies for just over a week, and water is also becoming a serious issue. “They are reverting to traditional systems of water purification. They have almost no access to electricity as the generator only works for around three hours a day”, ACN was told.

“The fighting is coming closer and closer. But without a humanitarian truce there can be no evacuation because people are very scared; they are hearing about bombing in other areas in the Gaza Strip. Moreover, famine and lack of water and shelter are terrible in these other areas as well”, said the source.

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