A cancer patient himself, the Argentine priest from the Institute of the Incarnate Word decided to stay in the Strip to support the few remaining Christians. He talks about the difficulties in getting medical treatment, the injustices that Gazans face, and the activities of his parish.
Buenos Aires (AsiaNews) – Two days before Israel and Hamas agreed to a truce, Father Gabriel Romanelli, who was still recovery from his latest chemotherapy session, learnt that a building some 40 metres from his church, the only Catholic place of worship in the Gaza Strip, was going to be bombed.
With a strength that he attributes only to the Grace of God, he got the children who had found refuge in his parish, to draw. Thus, staying close to the little ones, he survived the closest attack that he experienced in his 25 years in the Middle East.
A missionary with the Institute of the Incarnate Word (Instituto del Verbo Encarnado), a congregation established in Argentina, his native country, Fr Romanelli is the only Argentine in the Gaza Strip.
When he was a teenager in Buenos Aires, he knew that he wanted to consecrate his life to God and announce the Good News in places where “there were people who suffered for the faith.”
He has been doing this since 1995, first in Egypt, then Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, the last two years in the Gaza Strip.
In September 2020, he was told he had a malignant tumour in the colon. After it was removed, he was prescribed six months of chemotherapy.
“The health system in the Gaza Strip is very deficient and inadequate. In the heat of war, thank God, Egypt helped with the most seriously wounded, but for cancer treatment, certain things can be done [in Gaza], others cannot,” Fr Romanelli told AsiaNews.
Fortunately, the medication he required was available and he was able to follow the treatment himself without interrupting his parish work.
However, according to several human rights organisations, many cancer patients in Gaza cannot be treated in the strip and must go to Israel or other areas of Palestine, but they cannot always do so because they are not authorised to cross the borders.
“Now it seems that some restrictions are being lifted, but there are still people who need to be treated. In fact, a lady from our parish has cancer and for a long time she has not been allowed to go to Israel, Jerusalem, other parts of Palestine, or Jordan where they have better means,” said the priest.
“The health system [in Gaza] is very deficient and was further weakened by the pandemic and then by the war. While there are now signs that it is improving, it is still in a critical state,” he added.
The problems in Gaza, which has been subjected to a blockade by Israel for the past 12 years, has also led to a decline in the numbers of Christians.
According to the data provided by Fr Romanelli, there are 133 Catholics, 13 of whom are religious. Together with Greek Orthodox, with whom they work together, Christians number 1,077 amid two million people.
Fifteen years ago, there were 3,500 Christians and 206 Catholics. “Many have left. This is why we work and ask God not to lose faith,” Father Gabriel explained.
Gaza Christians “are descendants of the first disciples of Christ. Christmas for them means Bethlehem, where they have relatives and Easter means Jerusalem.
In the past, “They could visit those holy places at least once or twice a year, but those who are between 16 and 35 years old cannot because they are not allowed. Young people are denied that right.”
Of the charism of his congregation, the Word incarnate, Romanelli values how its members present themselves “without duplicities or ambiguities, with charity, prudence and patience, without hiding their Catholic identity. In Palestine there is no persecution, but being a minority, it is difficult to bear witness to Christ.”
Yet, in peacetime his parish is always full of people. Most of the students in the two parish schools are Muslim, but the two establishments also offer religious training and prayer for adults and young people, an oratory for children and numerous works of charity.
Through the latter, said the priest, “we show who we love and in whom we believe: Jesus Christ.”