Father Gabriel Romanelli, of the religious family of the Incarnate Word, is the only Catholic parish priest in the entire Gaza Strip. His parish, dedicated to the Holy Family, is located in Gaza City, and has 134 souls, according to the latest available data. A small but vital community, which Father Gabriel leads with passion, the same that vibrates, when we hear him on the phone, in the story of the events of the last days near Gaza. But Father Gabriel does not break down too much, and, while betraying the emotion due to the bombing of the Strip, his voice remains quiet, his words are still closed by a “thank you for what you do”.
Father Gabriel, after almost a year of silence, we return to talk about Gaza, and we return to do so while the bombs rain and what seems like a new war breaks out.
Exactly. After the last war in May 2021, Gaza had experienced a period of relative peace. Since last year, there had been almost no more incidents, and no one expected such an attack. According to the State of Israel, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) group was targeted. But behind the attacks, the motivations can be many, even very different from the ‘official’ ones: only the Eternal Father knows. What is certain is that civilians have been involved, many, too many: there is talk of 44 dead and 360 wounded; above all, there is talk of fifteen dead children and 151 injured children, according to sources in the Palestinian Ministry of Health… Really, a catastrophe that took everyone by surprise: in the last period, it seemed that we had arrived at a more peaceful coexistence. Israel had issued more than ten thousand work permits for Gazans. They could finally seek an occupation outside gaza, try to bring home sustenance for their families. The number of these permits – and, in some cases, even their duration – has been truly exceptional. And then a whole year without bombing… For this area, which is always a war zone, it is a long period. Expectations of serenity, peace and calm had been created. But here we are again.
It is a discouraging and frightening circumstance. Are you demotivated?
Not at all. We do not lose hope. On the contrary, with the truce we have once again put our hands on most of our projects. We work with serenity and confidence, even if we do not have too many illusions, and we are always ready to go back and close everything if the danger should intensify again.
Which projects are you referring to?
Already tomorrow, at 8.30 am, the parish oratory, closed for security reasons five days ago, will be open again. On Thursday we will take a trip with the women of Gaza, on Friday we will start again the scout camp that ended last week and had to start again in these days. Let me say that these are indeed valuable opportunities to combat the frustration, anger and mistrust that are always present in the Strip. Having the opportunity to see each other, to participate in beautiful initiatives or with social value is a very powerful help, especially for women.
On Sunday, then – if the truce holds, thank God – we will return to the beach, as we always do in the summer. Since I have been parish priest, I want that on Sundays, after the morning of prayer, we can live it on the beach, together with families. Here in Gaza it is difficult to see whole families on the beach: women often cannot go to the sea. So every Sunday we go to the beach with the whole Christian community, all together, so that no one can be targeted. We ask permission from the authorities, rent a stretch of the beach and we go there to play, sing, eat until the evening. Believe me, it’s really important for these people. It is a precious moment.
You are a very vital community. Do you have other projects?
Yes. Our projects, the projects in which we participate as a Catholic Church are many. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem plays a very important role in coordinating and implementing these projects; it is something that must be recognized, it is important. In Gaza, the Catholic Church runs three private schools, one of which, that of the Sisters of the Rosary of Jerusalem, is the largest and most important in Gaza. We have ten pastoral groups, some for children, others for adults, others for women… Many of these are attended mainly by the Orthodox…
Therefore, the Catholic Church is also attentive to interreligious dialogue.
Absolutely. The Orthodox are much more numerous than us, more than a thousand, and we gladly host them in the spaces of our parish. And then the Church helps the many destitute Muslim families in Gaza. No less than 20,000 individuals are assisted every month by Caritas. Next to these, there are the 66 butterfly children, sick with an incurable syndrome, whom we try to comfort with the help of Pro Terra Sancta.
And all this has been interrupted by the bombings of recent days.
Yes, call it a “war.” It is a war. Those bombings were frightening. Thank God, there has been no irreparable damage in our community, but many feel distressed. The other day a parishioner wrote to me that in situations like this – which often happen – you can’t think of anything but a safe place to return to. He asked me, “Father, but will we ever see peace in Gaza?” … She said that, looking around, she felt frightened: trivially, electricity, which here in Gaza arrives only eight hours a day, in this moment of crisis has been reduced to four hours a day … Damage in our community, in fact, there has been none, but fear is felt, people live it all.
Yet, you said, you go ahead. Yes, we do not lose heart. We do this above all thanks to the prayer of those who support us and carry us in our hearts. We know of so many missionaries, of prayer chains that have been activated. This is fundamental for us.