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Gaza pastor: Pray for peace, hostage release, aid

Father Gabriel Romanelli celebrates Mass under a light at the Rosary Sisters convent chapel in Gaza May 12, 2021, after the school and compound suffered damage from shrapnel from Israeli bombing. The priest was unable to return to his parish for eight hours because of the continuous bombing. (OSV News photo/courtesy Holy Family Catholic Parish, Gaza)

(OSV News) — As the Israel-Hamas war nears its fourth week, the pastor of Gaza’s only Catholic church urged prayers for peace, the release of hostages and delivery of humanitarian aid, telling OSV News his parishioners are experiencing “a terrible situation, a crazy situation.”

Father Gabriel Romanelli, an Incarnate Word priest assigned to Gaza’s Church of the Holy Family, said his parish complex is now housing some 700 persons in dire need.

The Argentine priest communicated to OSV News in an email message sent through Aid to the Church in Need, which since 1947 has worked under the guidance of the pope to provide pastoral and humanitarian assistance to persecuted Catholics throughout the world.

On Oct. 18, well over 500,000 kids participated in an annual global rosary campaign sponsored by the organization, which was dedicated this year to peace in the Holy Land.

Father Romanelli was in Bethlehem at the time war broke out between Israel and Hamas, with the conflict sparked by the latter’s Oct. 7 ambush — coinciding with a Sabbath and Jewish holiday — on some 22 locations in Israel. Hamas members gunned down civilians and took more than 200 hostages, according to Israel, including infants, the elderly and persons with disabilities. So far, just four adult women have been released.

Israel declared war on Hamas Oct. 8, placing Gaza under siege and pounding the region with airstrikes as Hamas has returned fire. To date, some 1,400 in Israel, including at least 30 U.S. citizens, and — according to Hamas officials — close to 6,500 in Gaza have been killed. The ensuing humanitarian crisis has left the Middle East “on the verge of the abyss,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

On Oct. 11, Pope Francis called Father Romanelli, who has been unable to return to his parish and is currently in Jerusalem, and a few days later the pope also called Holy Family’s parochial vicar, Incarnate Word Father Yousef Asaad, and the religious sisters at the parish, who are still in residence there.

Father Asaad and the sisters, who represent three religious communities — the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the Sisters of the Rosary, and the Missionaries of Charity — “try not to show (the) children their sadness and fear,” said Father Romanelli, who struggles with the separation from his flock.

He told OSV News his parish is starting to have “supply difficulties.”

Prior to the war, the area had four hours of electricity a day, but they no longer have any, he said.

Humanitarian aid has not reached the site, he said, and what aid has been provided so far “is nothing compared to the needs of the Gazan population.”

A small amount of fuel remains “to charge certain appliance batteries” and to assist in transporting water for household use, he said.

Currently, parishioners and those sheltering at the complex are purifying water with chlorine tablets to render it potable, he said.

Water itself “will become a great need,” since the parish is distributing as much as possible — and “with rain, the water problem will be more serious for the sick, the elderly and the injured,” he said.

Contaminated water poses a range of health risks, particularly in overcrowded environments with insufficient sanitation infrastructure.

There is “no kerosene and … very little gas” for cooking, said Father Romanelli.

Refugees at the parish have organized themselves into “commissions” to manage daily life, with each group taking charge of concerns such as water supplies, cleaning, community organization, communication and children’s activities, he said.

Life in the parish now “resembles the first Christian communities, with (their) faults and qualities,” he said. “Among the refugees in the parish, we find engineers and doctors, who have to sleep on the floor with everyone else.”

Father Romanelli said that all of them know they are in real danger, and that heeding Israel’s orders to head south in Gaza ahead of an anticipated ground invasion by Israeli forces would be as or even more difficult than their current circumstances.

Yet amid the hardship and fear, “parishioners experience the presence of Jesus and Mary all the time,” he said.

Mass is celebrated twice a day, at 8 a.m. and again around 5 p.m., and the rosary is recited continually by children, families and various groups, he said.

In addition, there is a daily hour of Eucharistic adoration, he said.

The religious sisters are doing everything possible to continue their programs for the elderly and for persons with disabilities, said Father Romanelli, ensuring people are “accompanied all the time” as they talk and pray.

Father Romanelli urged the faithful to pray for peace, and to implore political and diplomatic leaders to do everything possible to end the bombings.

“It is the most necessary thing,” he said. “It is not against justice, but it means that the bombings continue to cause harm, to kill, to injure people, and that they have not succeeded in provoking the release of all the hostages. This must stop for the good of all. And it would be a window of hope.”

He also called for prayers for the release of the hostages, and for humanitarian convoys to be admitted to Gaza.

Until then, he and the Holy Family community rely on Christ to sustain them.

“The first psychologist-protector is Jesus,” said Father Romanelli.

Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter, at @GinaJesseReina

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