As part of a five day annual pilgrimage to support Christian communities in the Holy Land, bishops from Europe and North America joined local Catholic parishes for Mass on Sunday morning in Nablus, Jerusalem and Gaza City. There is only one Catholic parish in the Gaza strip.
It was a cold, bright and sunny day in Jerusalem on Sunday morning, against the rush hour traffic, all the way towards the Gaza strip. Home to over 1.5 million people, many of them living in huge refugee camps, and controlled by the Islamic Hamas group, Gaza remains under tight military control imposed by Israel to try and stop militants firing rockets into nearby border towns.
The narrow coastal strip of Gaza is sealed off with a huge concrete wall topped by barbed wire and control towers and very few people are allowed in or out at the heavily guarded crossings. Through the empty fields and orange groves towards the Erez border, one is surprised by the sight of group after group of young Israeli men and women in military uniforms, with combat boots and guns headed into the training camps along the route. After crossing heavily protected security gates and passport controls, there is a totally different world where donkey drawn carts compete with rusty cars along the potholed and rubbish strewn roads, while skinny boys drive small flocks of sheep amidst jagged concrete slabs and rusting wires of a bombed out industrial estate. The signs of the 2009 conflict and the continuing Israeli air strikes are all around, though new houses are being built, students crowd around the smart university buildings and the shops seem to be bustling with business. All the women are veiled with some wearing the ‘niqab’ or full facial cover.
The compound of the Holy Family parish is home to just a couple of hundred Catholics resident in the Gaza strip. With the help of the Church in Jerusalem and elsewhere, the parish runs three schools for Muslim and Christian children, as well as a centre for the elderly and catechism programs for the youth and young married couples. The Argentinian born parish priest Fr Jorge also provides food and medicine for some of the most needy families, assisted by a dozen dedicated sisters from different parts of the world.
After the Sunday Mass in the simple white painted church with bright stained glass windows, local people talked of their difficulties, caught between the Israeli blockade, denying them contact with family and friends in the West Bank (around 500 permits are issued for the 3000 Christians at Christmas and Easter, but not for those aged between 16 and 35) and the problems of finding jobs or raising families in the majority Islamic society. Most of the people there love the Christians, people say, while others complain that their children were ‘invited’ to become Muslims and needed to be strengthened in their Christian faith.
Night falls fast in this part of the world and anyone able to leave Gaza has to do so before 3 o’clock when the border crossing is closed. One has to drive fast and make it through the first gate and across the no-man’s land to the Israeli side in record time, with evident relief written all over the faces of the guides travelling in the convoy with the visiting bishops. Yet back towards Jerusalem at dusk, it is hard to forget the faces and voices of the women in particular at the Holy Family parish urging people to tell the world about their plight and misery, to pray for peace and above all for the courage that they may continue to witness to their Christian faith in an increasingly difficult context.