The Palestinian wife of the Egyptian former pastor of Gaza Baptist Church had been sheltering in the Saint Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church with her three children and 350 others—but not her husband. Two weeks before the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, Hanna Maher had traveled temporarily back to Egypt, where he had to remain after the war broke out.
Despite the horrors of suffering 43 days of bombardment by herself, as CT previously reported, the family separation is the reason why Janet and her children are now safely in Egypt, reunited with Hanna. But first they had to undergo a harrowing journey that began with tearful goodbyes to a hallowed community.
“I spent weeks with these people and am broken by the experience,” Janet said. “But everyone pleaded: If you get out, tell the world about our situation.”
The death toll in Gaza exceeds 11,000, including more than 5,000 children, according to statistics released by the ministry of health in the Hamas-run enclave and last updated November 10. But save for the shrapnel and scattered remains of human carcasses flying over the walls of the church compound, little of this was known to the Christians inside.With no television or internet and only intermittent connection to the cell phone network, Janet and her fellow sheltering Gazans knew only the daily reality of war. Most of the day was spent trying to figure out how to procure food, with the young men tasked with trips outside to the local market.Most often, the day would begin with bombing—sending the people scurrying away from windows and doors to the center of the room. Three times a week, the priest would lead morning prayers. Frequently, they would gather for impromptu singing, simply to calm their nervous spirits. Some would read the Bible; others cried alone in the pews.They would clean often. Dust and debris settled after every explosion, while most people suffered some form of illness—coughing, fever, stomachaches—with flies everywhere, flitting about from the corpses in the street.With no breakfast or dinner, most daily meals consisted of lentil soup with occasional rice or macaroni. Water was seldom clean, though the clergy obtained some by trading available gasoline to the neighboring mosque, which used the fuel to run its well-pumping generator.“Once, the priest was able to find chocolate,” Janet said. “It was like Christmas.”But after eating around 4 p.m., the darkness settled. With no electricity, everyone moved to their mattresses for a fitful night of sleep. As 100 other people in the funeral hall of the church tucked in, Janet read Psalm 23 to her children. But she relied on the more militant realities of Psalm 91 to settle her own anxious thoughts.“A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand,” Janet recited. “If you say, ‘The Lord is my refuge,’ and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent.”She has ample personal experience to prove it.Before moving her family to the shelter, Janet left her apartment in search of food. Finding none at the market, she returned home. Five minutes later, a missile struck the facility, killing her neighbor. Shaken deeply by the tragedy, she also saw the hand of God in her protection.But others were not so fortunate, even inside the church. At least 20 people died when an Israeli missile, which the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said targeted a Hamas command center nearby, struck just outside the church compound. Last week, an elderly man died when he ran out of medicine for his gall bladder, and a young man with a severe fever could not get to a hospital.