“Let us work together to replace despair with HOPE, fear with human SECURITY and humiliation with DIGNITY”

Gaza pastor Fr. Gabriel Romanelli talks about wartime Christmas, local Christians’ anguish

Christians live with “conflicting feelings” because, on the one hand, they consider the church, the parish “a safe place”, despite the bombings, while, on the other, they are “anguished” by the “signals” that come “from outside: (Israel) continues the war, there are no prospects of truce” and the missiles “are getting closer and closer,” this according to Fr. Gabriel Romanelli, pastor at the Holy Family parish church in Gaza.

Currently, he is in Jerusalem (he was earlier in Bethlehem), unable to return to Gaza since the beginning of the conflict due to Israel’s bordure closure, he told AsiaNews.

Israeli airstrikes and the army’s ground operations have “now reached the parish area,” where “four people have been injured by shrapnel,” and material damage has been reported, namely solar panels on roofs, in particular the former kindergarten where hundreds of people now sleep, with water leaking due to broken roof tiles, as well as in the room used as the parish archive.

“A water tank and the roof of one of the buildings of the Sisters of Mother Teresa were also hit. Children and teenagers inside are doing well, but they lost their water supply and the rain of these days is getting inside.”

Meanwhile, even among Christians, the number of victims is increasing, including war-related deaths and deaths due to the lack of medical care, at least 22 so far.

“Eighteen people died in the attack on the Greek Orthodox church, 17 Christians and one Muslim. A few days later, a woman was also injured in the shelling. Then an elderly woman was shot by Israeli snipers, her body recovered days later during the brief truce.”

Two men also died, “one in the early days of the war and a second, a refugee in the parish, who died because there was no room where he could be operated.

“Finally, another victim in the south, a place that was said to be safe: a 34-year-old man, who could not travel to the northern part of the Strip to be operated for appendicitis, which got worse and killed him.”

As international organisations have warned, bombing and sanitation issues are creating the conditions for a “perfect storm”.

“Today, those who fall ill in Gaza, however minor the ailment may be, risk dying,” Fr Romanelli explained. “Food and drinking water are in short supply. And now we are starting to feel the cold and damp” because the temperature can reach 10 below (freezing).

In makeshift shelters, in churches and parish halls and kindergarten, “where people sleep on the floor, on improvised mattresses, there is no heating. Even the flu risks causing very serious problems,” he laments.

First from Bethlehem and now from Jerusalem, the parish priest wants to be the “voice and memory” of the people who suffer or die. “They know that they are not abandoned,” Fr Romanelli said, speaking about his parishioners’ feelings during these weeks of war, “along with the 2.3 million residents united by tremendous suffering.”

“Pope Francis’ daily phone calls, even when he was ill and could not easily speak, bring great comfort and encouragement, as do the solidarity and closeness of Patriarch (Pierbattista) Pizzaballa,” who heads the Church of Jerusalem of the Latins.

“There is also deep disappointment because the international community is unable to find an agreement for a truce that would stop the bombs and facilitate the entry of aid and medicines, even in the north where there are 400,000 people. What little aid does get in, goes to the south; nothing reaches the north. Everyone is calling for action on peace and justice, as well as the release of prisoners” in the hands of Hamas.

Amid the fighting, violence and suffering, Gaza Christians are preparing for Christmas, which once was a time of celebration.

“It’s always a special moment,” Fr. Romanelli noted, “but today there is also great sadness and anguish because it is not even possible to reach a ceasefire, let alone peace. A month, a week, a day… Even one more minute of war means more deaths, wounded, untreated sick people, destruction that is already massive.

“At the very least, a permanent truce is needed, like in the past during other conflicts”; but the priest admits, with deep sadness, that only the winds of war seem to prevail at present.

In the past, the Christmas period saw the patriarch visit Gaza Christians with Mass celebrated at the Holy Family parish church on the Sunday before Christmas.

“This year,” says the Argentine priest of the Incarnate Word, the patriarch “had thought of staying three days and we had been preparing this for months. The first communion and confirmations of children and young people, others dressed as cardinals (in homage to the new cardinal) and saints with placards that tell their story, up to the visit to the sick and adults who live alone. All events cut short by the war. Today it is not even possible to leave the parish, because the danger to life is real.”

For Fr. Romanelli, these weeks of war and separation have brought “suffering. “Several times we have asked to be allowed to return” but his request to Israeli authorities have fallen on deaf ears.

“Still, we continue to work for peace and to tell what is happening in the parish. I have been in the Middle East for 28 years. My first visit to the Strip dates to 2005 and I have been a parish priest in Gaza for four years. I know the Christian victims one by one, not least a young father of 30 whom I saw for the first time when he was little more than a child.”

The priest stops here, remembering the victims and renewing his prayer for peace. “Of course, Israel has 5,400 wounded in addition to about 1,200 deaths (most killed during Hamas’s attack on 7 October, which triggered the war), but more than 50,000 Palestinians have been wounded, including many children, with amputations, while the death toll tops 18,600, including 7,000 minors… That’s enough, enough, enough!”

2023-12-21T08:34:34+00:00 December 21st, 2023|Categories: News|