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Priest: Gaza Christians suffer much as Israeli strikes on strip continue but aren’t losing hope

Buildings lie in ruin in Gaza as seen from southern Israel Dec. 12, 2023, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas. (OSV News photo/Clodagh Kilcoyne, Reuters)

JERUSALEM (OSV News) — As the humanitarian crisis escalates in Gaza — amid tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered near Gaza’s border with Egypt, attempting to flee, and a health care system on the verge of collapsing — a Gaza priest warned that Christians in Gaza are suffering a lot.

“It is very difficult and the parish is suffering very much,” said Father Gabriel Romanelli, pastor of Holy Family Parish, in an interview with Vatican News Dec. 6. He said there is little water, gas, food, medicine or diesel fuel needed to use the generators for electricity. Still, he said, the religious sisters of the parish manage to cook three times a week and distribute food to the neighborhood.

He also expressed his own pain in finding himself stuck in Jerusalem on Oct. 7 and unable to return to his parish in Gaza.

Israel and Hamas entered into their longest confrontation on Oct. 7 when Hamas terrorists broke through Israel’s southern security gate and infiltrated into Israeli agricultural communities and towns, murdering 1,200 people and taking 239 hostage. Israel launched an air, sea and land counterattack and has vowed to obliterate Hamas. The fighting took place first in northern Gaza, which has become the scene of huge destruction.

Following the end of the ceasefire Dec. 1, Israeli forces have begun maneuvers in southern Gaza to root out Hamas leaders. According to the Gaza Health Ministry, which is run by Hamas, 18,000 people have been killed since the start of the confrontation, but it does not differentiate between civilians and Hamas members.

During the ceasefire, 105 hostages, mostly women and children and including foreign nationals, were exchanged for 240 Palestinian women and teenage prisoners held by Israel.

The only children remaining in Gaza are Kfir Bibas, who is 10 months old, and his brother, Ariel, 4, who were kidnapped with their parents, Shiri and Yarden. Hamas has said that Shiri and her sons were killed in an Israeli bombing attack, but Israel has not been able to verify the information.

In a Dec. 1 interview posted on the Latin Patriarchate website, Father Romanelli noted that there are 1,017 Christians now living in Gaza, of whom 135 are Catholic. All the Christian community is sheltering either at the Greek Orthodox Church compound or at the Holy Family Church compound, he said. Most Christians have preferred to stay in the north of the Gaza Strip together with their community in the Christian compounds, although Israeli forces asked Palestinian civilians to flee to the south to avoid being caught in the battle.

After some Christians holding foreign passports were able to leave Gaza earlier in the fighting, there are now about 600 Christians taking refuge at the church, he said.

“There is shock and sadness, even if they have strong faith they remain humans and it is normal to experience sadness. Even our Lord, Jesus Christ, God incarnate, wept,” he said.

“These are very hard times, but they have great trust in God’s divine protection,” he added.

Advent and Christmas celebrations will be “very different” than the normal joyous activities, said Father Romanelli in the Dec. 6 Vatican News interview. But, he said, “the children are living the essential of Advent with Jesus and praying for justice and peace.” All the parishioners are preparing spiritually for Jesus to be born in their hearts and lives, and to experience the simplicity of the grotto, he said.

Ten pastoral groups, despite ongoing violence around, are still active in the parish, Father Romanelli said, “which include a group for children of different ages, the scouts, the boys, who serve at the altar and church.”

“Each group has its own activity, sometimes they gather to pray and adore Jesus in the Eucharist,” Holy Family’s pastor said, emphasizing that even young children attend adoration.

Pope Francis shows his closeness with the parish and continues to call daily, Father Romanelli told Vatican News, calling even when he was not feeling well in recent weeks.

“His voice could hardly be heard and yet he kept calling,” said Father Romanelli. “This gesture of love is a great support for those who don’t feel abandoned by the church.”

On Dec. 8, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, visited the Seminary of Beit Jala, a Palestinian Christian town in the West Bank. as part of his yearly pastoral visit, during which he presided over the Mass for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which coincides with the anniversary of the seminary.

In his homily, Cardinal Pizzaballa stressed the importance of living God’s call in these difficult times for the Holy Land, saying: “We cannot deny the evil that exists in the world, but we must bring God’s grace and light to the world. It’s easy to complain about the negative things in the world, but we need people who are willing to speak life and hope into society.”

Judith Sudilovsky writes for OSV News from Jerusalem.

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