Gaza – In the Gaza Strip, before the atrocities committed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad on October 7 and before the Israeli bombing began, there were just over a thousand Christians living among more than two million Palestinians of the Islamic faith. “The Latin Catholics,” Father Gabriel Romanelli told Fides at the beginning of 2022, “were less than 150”. Nobody can say today what will become of them, given the catastrophe that is currently unfolding in Gaza. Meanwhile, it must be noted that the exodus of Christians from the Holy Land has been greatly accelerated over the last 80 years in connection with the bloody phases of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And that Hamas’ appearance on the Palestinian stage also marks a “before” and an “after” for Christians in Gaza.
For decades, identification with the national cause of Palestine has also been a useful means for many Palestinian Christians to reaffirm their identities as indigenous Arab communities in an environment shattered by the conflicts that have tormented the Holy Land since the founding of the State of Israel to seek an antidote to sectarian intimidation and discrimination with reference to a common “Arab origin”. The non-sectarian nature of many political movements in Palestine has encouraged the entry of activists from Christian families and communities. The proportion of Christians in the ranks of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was certainly higher than that of the baptized in the Palestinian population. Among others, Habib Kawaji, Hanna Nasser and Anglican Bishop Elias Khoury were members of the PLO Executive Committee. Historical leaders of the Marxist and radical parties such as George Abash of the Popular Front and Nayef Awatmeh of the Democratic Front also came from Christian families. In their political engagement, however, Christian activists did not express their identity claims from a religious perspective, but rather “camouflaged” themselves with the common “Arab origins” of their Muslim compatriots. The draft Constitution of the Palestinian State, drawn up in 2003, guaranteed freedom of worship and state protection of the holy sites of various religions, but at the same time referred to Muslim Sharia law as the main source of legislation. PLO leader Yasser Arafat also brought international attention to the Christians in Palestine as an indigenous part of the Palestinian people. On his first trip to Rome in 1982, Arafat was received by John Paul II at the Vatican at the invitation of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly chaired by the Italian Catholic politician Giulio Andreotti, at a time when no Western head of state had direct contacts with the PLO leader. Five years later, the Pope appointed Patriarch Michel Sabbah as head of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem in Palestine for the first time. After the political triumph of Hamas Arafat died in France in November 2004. A little over a year later, in January 2006, the Islamist Hamas movement – which in previous years had also gained support in the West Bank outside the “stronghold” of Gaza – won the elections, prevailing over Fatah, Arafat’s Party. In these elections, Christian candidates were also on Hamas’ lists and were elected with the votes of the Islamic majority. In cities with a strong Christian presence (Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, Ramallah), Hamas councilors elected in the 2005 local elections supported the formation of municipal councils headed by Christian mayors. Even in Bethlehem, the city where Jesus was born, the Latin Catholic mayor Victor Batarseh ruled with the support of the six Hamas councilors and the mayor elected by Islamic Jihad, which inspires his policies in the fight against the corruption of the “old” parties. Even the then archbishop coadjutor, Fouad Twal, – who would become Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem in 2008 – acknowledged in several interviews that many Christian voters, angered by the inflexibility, corruption of the old Palestinian parties and the failure to fulfill promises to create a State of Palestine, contributed to Hamas’s political triumph. After their political triumph, Hamas leaders continue their policy of appeasing gestures and statements towards their “Christian brothers.” A few months before the elections, Mahmoud al-Zahar, who later became foreign minister in the Hamas-led government, declared: “It would not be a big surprise if there was a Christian in the Hamas leadership in the future.” In February 2006, when the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were also ravaged by armed groups who threatened anti-Western revenge for the Mohammad Threatening cartoons, Mahmoud al-Zahar visited the Catholic church in Gaza and promised journalists that he would place armed Hamas escorts in front of Christian institutions “because you are our brothers and sisters.” In 2007, when the conflict between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip escalated into armed conflict and led to the virtual split of the Palestinian government (Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Fatah in the West Bank), the leaders of the Islamist party invited Western journalists to show that “Peace had returned to the Gaza Strip” and organized a bus tour for them, which also stopped in front of the Catholic church and included a meeting with the then priest, Father Manuel Musallam. During the years that Gaza Strip remains under Hamas rule, in an area continually torn apart by flaring wars that wreak havoc on the civilian population, Christians experience trials and suffering alongside their fellow citizens. Father Gabriel Romanelli, the current Catholic parish priest, had repeatedly pointed out to Fides the apostolic life that develops around the community. “For me it is a truly beautiful mission. Every time I am amazed when I think that, according to tradition, baby Jesus passed through Gaza on his way to and from Egypt, as the Holy Family, after whom our parish is named, had to flee to save him from the evil of Herod” ( see Fides, 25/2/2022). In December 2020, a provision from a department of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in the Gaza Strip ordered all Muslims to limit their “participation” in Christian Christmas celebrations. This move reveals the instrumental duplicity of so many statements of appeasement previously expressed by Hamas leaders for their “Christian brothers and sisters.” In Jerusalem, Father Ibrahim Faltas, Egyptian monk of the Custody of the Holy Land, sharply denounced the “dark side” of Hamas’ history. To make amends, some Hamas representatives visited the community in Gaza and had their photos taken with the priest under the Christmas tree. In Gaza, during Hamas’ rule, Christians were able to hold on to what Father Gabriel Romanelli called most important: “preserving the physical presence of Christ himself in the Eucharist” and asking that he also guard the daily path of those who follow in his footsteps there. Today it is even clearer that the continuation of this work in its integrity is entirely entrusted to the miracle and not to the strategies of human resistance. (“Mother, we cannot do it alone, without your Son we can do nothing,” cf. Pope Francis, Prayer for Peace, October 27, 2023).
By Gianni Valente | Agenzia Fides