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Gaza Christians are “tired” but determined to stay, says cardinal


John Burger - published on 05/22/24

Four-day visit of Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and return of long-absent pastor boost spirits at Holy Family parish.

Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, found a community of Christians in the Gaza Strip that is concerned about how life will be after the war ends. He found people concerned that schooling will continue for their children. 

He also found devastation and struggles of all kinds. Practically all houses belonging to parishioners have been destroyed by bombing.

But he did not hear one word of anger in his four-day visit last week, concluding on Pentecost Sunday.

The patriarch shared his experience during a half-hour press conference Monday at the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem. He refused to discuss how his surprise visit to the war-torn Strip was arranged and who provided security. 

Responding to a reporter’s question, he said that he was unaware of offers by U.S. officials, who are building a temporary humanitarian pier on Gaza’s Mediterranean coast, for Christians to emigrate to the US, Canada, or Australia, saying that Christians can decide for themselves. Many, he said, are determined to stay.

The Catholic community in Gaza City is tiny – around 100 persons, according to a spokesman for the Latin Patriarchate. But the compound of the Parish of the Holy Family, which includes a school, has been hosting about 500 people during the war, including the Latin Catholics and their Greek Orthodox and Muslim neighbors. Most people have lost everything, and Holy Family has been able to shelter people in the school. Each classroom has become a temporary home for one or two families.

Unlike in the early months of Israel’s invasion of Gaza – carried out to destroy the Hamas military organization that attacked Israel and killed about 1,200 Israelis last October – there is enough food for people, Cardinal Pizzaballa said. What seemed just as important, though, is the spirit of survival. 

“What is comforting is I saw a community which is well organized, active, able to live in this situation with the right attitude,” said the cardinal. “I didn’t hear, in almost four days, one word of anger. Pain, suffering, complaints – of course, you cannot not complain. But not anger or resentment. This is something very positive. I really appreciate it.”

Looking to the future

The patriarch said the community is united and “well organized” and serves as an example of ecumenism in action.

“What was interesting: there was no reason to talk about the past,” he noted. “The main concern they have is about the school. This school lost the academic year. But what about next year? What about the children? There are dozens of children just inside the compound but also all around. I mean, it’s full of children.”

He said that the fact that people are thinking about the future is “very comforting.”

But many people are asking the local Caritas clinic for medicines to treat skin disease because without a properly working water and sewage system, hygiene issues have been an issue, he said. There is also a need for “a lot of psychological support,” he added. “The traumatic impact on the population is enormous.”

Cardinal Pizzaballa said he visited Gaza to show support, and he is backing that up by bringing the Knights of Malta’s humanitarian arm to begin working there. He was accompanied on his visit by Fra’ Alessandro de Franciscis, Grand Hospitaller of the Sovereign Order of Malta. Operating through Malteser International, the Knights will bring food and medical help to the devastated territory.

“The Knights of Malta are experts in field hospitals in war zones and so on,” the cardinal said, expressing hope that other humanitarian agencies will join them. 

Because many of Gaza’s Christians want to remain in their homeland, it is very important “for us as the Church to give an immediate and concrete answer in order to assure them that there is a future for them,” Pizzaballa said.

The Church has already been providing humanitarian aid, both through Caritas and through grass-roots initiatives. The cardinal stepped out of the Holy Family compound to visit a Christian-owned bakery that had been severely damaged by bombing and recently reopened, thanks to the support of the Patriarchate. It offers work to local Christians and Muslims. 

Eternal Bread

Also accompanying Cardinal Pizzaballa was the pastor of Holy Family parish, Fr. Gabriele Romanelli, who was in Rome when fighting broke out last October and was unable to return until now.

Fr. Gabriele Romanelli welcomed back to Gaza
Parishioners of Holy Family in Gaza welcome back their pastor, Fr. Gabriele Romanelli (with glasses).

The Argentine-born priest of the Institute of the Incarnate Word will remain now in Gaza City. He told AsiaNews that he found among his parishioners “a strong feeling of exhaustion, of depression,” but also a “desire to resume life, to rebuild.”

“All of them loved — and love — their land,” he said. “Many Christians are originally from Gaza and feel they belong to this land.”

He said that with the continuous presence of the assistant pastor, Fr. Youssef Assad, over the past seven months, there has been no interruption to the spiritual life of the parish. 

The patriarch also took note of this. In a statement published on the Patriarchate’s website, he lauded the “perseverance of the faithful of Gaza in celebrating Mass and adoring Christ in the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, without any interruptions or weariness.” That, he said, “has indeed lifted their spirits and instilled in them strength, hope, and joy.”

In his statement, he echoed a call made by Pope Francis: “Enough killing! The war must end, and avenues for various aid must be opened to avoid an imminent humanitarian crisis. I hope this nightmare ends quickly.”

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