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Gaza Christians bury their first casualty of the war

July 28, 2014 7:19 P.M. (Updated: July 29, 2014 11:57 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (AFP) -- Jalila Ayyad's widower George still had a black eye and bloodstains on his shirt as he processed ahead of her coffin, hours after the Israeli airstrike that destroyed their home.

Jalila, 60, was the first Christian casualty of a bloody Gaza war.

She is also survived by two sons, but one could not be at her funeral because he is in hospital with serious wounds suffered in Sunday afternoon's Israeli strike.

The simple coffin -- white with a black cross -- was carried reverently down the marble stairs of the cemetery, and into the chapel of the Saint Porphyrius Greek Orthodox church in Gaza City.

"She died under the rubble," said Jalila's nephew, Fuad Ayyad.

"Both her legs were crushed after the house collapsed with her, her husband and son inside."

An Orthodox priest in a black gown read passages from the Bible and swung an incense receptacle, as the coffin was set down beneath an ornate ceiling of gold leaf images of saints, their names written in Arabic and Greek.

An icon of the Virgin Mary was placed upon Jalila's coffin, and some two dozen relatives sang "Hallelujah" as the afternoon call to prayer rose from the minaret of the adjacent mosque.

Her funeral was a somber affair, but momentarily took on a political dimension when one member of the parish picked up a microphone and railed against Israel's bombardment of the small Palestinian coastal territory.

"This Palestinian Arab Christian woman died in shelling by the Israeli occupation," the speaker shouted angrily.

"There are massacres here every day. This is what happens to the Palestinian people. Where's the world, where's the international community in all this?"

"The bombs hit and kill -- they don't discriminate between civilian or militant," he said.

Dwindling Christian community

A relative, George Ayyad, agreed wholeheartedly. He dismissed the idea that Jalila's death would force more of the already dwindling Christian population out of Gaza.

"If we leave, that's exactly what the Israelis want. Anyway, where are we supposed to go? This is my homeland," he said.

"We Christians have been in Gaza for more than 1,000 years, and we're staying."

Her nephew Fuad was not so sure.

"Things like this make me want to just get out of here," he said.

Gaza's Christians have dwindled in number to around 1,500, most of them Greek Orthodox, out of a predominantly Sunni Muslim population of 1.7 million in the densely packed enclave.

The Christian community in Gaza City, like its counterparts elsewhere in the Middle East, has been shrinking because of both conflict and unemployment.

The ancient Mediterranean seafront city once had a thriving Christian community, especially under British-mandated Palestine that ended in 1948 with the creation of Israel.

Jalila's coffin was carried into the small church cemetery, which was itself hit by an Israeli shell earlier in the week, and lowered into the ground.

The community's first casualty was born in Jerusalem and also had French nationality, the family said.

The war has killed more than 1,030 Palestinians, most of them civilians including a large number of women and children, 43 Israeli soldiers and three civilians inside Israel.

"Today ... another human being, an innocent one, has lost her life," Archbishop Alexios said.

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