Cardinal Vincent Nichols visited the Gaza Strip on Sunday to offer support to the territory’s tiny Christian minority.
The Archbishop of Westminster praised Gaza’s Christians, whose numbers have dwindled during a decade of Hamas rule and an Israeli-Egyptian blockade.
“There has always been Christians here. Their numbers are small, but I believe their faith is strong,” he said.
Before Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, the Christian population in the coastal enclave was over 3,000. Today, just 1,200 Christians remain, most of them Orthodox.
Christian leaders blame the shattered economy, conflict with Israel and the blockade for encouraging Christians to move out.
But community members have also complained that they do not feel comfortable under Hamas rule.
Christians and their property have occasionally come under attack since Hamas seized power, but it’s not clear if they were targeted by the Islamic militant group or members of more extreme factions. Hamas denies it mistreats Christians.
Cardinal Nichols led Mass at the Holy Family Church on Sunday, calling on Mary to “pray for the protection” of the Christian community in Gaza.
He first visited Gaza in 2014 the end of a 50-days of fighting between Israel and Hamas. More than 2,200 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, were killed, according to Palestinian and UN figures. In Israel, 66 soldiers and seven civilians were killed.
Thousands of buildings and homes in Gaza were damaged from the fighting. The cardinal said that while he saw “some signs of rebuilding, there is an awful lot of damage that is still untouched.”
“The whole world is worried about the stability of the Middle East,” where both Christians and Muslims “are persecuted and murdered by the extremists,” he said.