Field Update: Gaza
Wednesday, 07 April 2010 00:00

The following article is a report from Tommaso and Alexander, of the AVSI network partner the Association for the Holy Land (ATS), as they conducted a monitoring mission from February 12 - 15, 2010 of the projects in the Gaza Strip, visiting the places and people that are being helped thanks to the support of many public and private donors, families, AVSI and ATS.  Initiatives in Gaza began in January 2009, answering the call of the Custodian of the Holy Land and Latin Patriarch to launch a solidarity campaign supporting 3,000 Christians in Gaza and their charitable works.  These charitable works have been an important reference point for the most needy and a concrete sign of brotherhood, free from religious distinctions, which are so important and irreplaceable especially now in the aftermath of the destruction caused by the Israeli invasion triggered by Hamas provocation.  To support Christian charitable works means to help the entire population; the recipients are families in great need, both Christian and Muslim.

Mission Report

Latina Parish, which operates in Gaza City, is now managed by two young priests. The pastor manages a school and several activities for children and youth of various ages.  At his side work several groups of nuns: The Missionaries of Charity, the religious order founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who look after the children with handicaps and the elderly, the Nuns of the Rosary who operate an important school and then the Little Sisters of Charles de Foucauld who carry on their ministries among the people and families.  Gaza   was evangelized at the beginning of Christianity by St. Porfirio who is remembered as the first bishop of Gaza, and by several monastic communities whose churches and monasteries, enriched by beautiful Byzantine mosaics, are still able to be visited today.

There are friends in Gaza. Our office is in Jerusalem; we requested permission to enter the Gaza Strip at the Israeli crossing point of Heretz.  After three months of waiting, and many phone calls and solicitations, we received confirmation that we had been added to the list of those authorized to enter.  We arrived at the crossing point on the morning of Friday, February 12 and after the usual controls and security checks, we crossed the border.  Waiting for us on the other side was the handyman of the parish, who would be our driver.  With him at the wheel, we started a reconnaissance trip along the 40 kilometers of the Strip, driving on the internal road that led down to the coast first and then follows the coast.  Along the road, we noted the destroyed buildings, especially on the north side.  All the public institutions, such as schools and hospitals, along with private residences have been razed to the ground.  The transportation infrastructure has been hit particularly hard: the airport, the ports, and the few roads that run throughout the small territory.  The Israeli tanks have also destroyed fields, olive groves and crops during their land attack which ran through the territory from east to west.  Nonetheless, the first impression is of an area that works with life and vitality.  Much has been cleaned and repaired.    People are well dressed, and the residential areas are neat and clean. The cities that we passed through (between Gaza City and Rafah) are full of stores carrying all sorts of products.  The shops are full of fruits, vegetables, different foods, clothing and anything that you might think to find in a city in the Middle East, even the eccentric gold and silver jewelry in the Asian style.  Thus we quickly arrived at the border with Egypt, which is also almost always closed.  It opens only sporadically for some authorized transit of goods and people.  Nonetheless the boarder is notoriously crossed underground by dozens if not hundreds of tunnels used to bring to the market vital and non vital goods in quantities beyond any expectation.

The tunnels today are the non-solution of compromise which permits the survival of the inhabitants of the Strip (around 1.5 million people of whom 1 million are refugees), without compromising too much and without facing the problem from a political point of view.  The solution is certainly not one that seems likely to be sustainable.

In the early afternoon, we arrive at the parish.  We immediately encounter a Missionary of Charity.  With a young and joyful face, the sister, originally from India, has been in the Holy Land for three years.  She ushers us into the house where we are surrounded by a swarm of boys and girls who hug us and run around in circles.  All of these children, tenderly received by the nuns, have serious physical and mental problems.  In a house nearby, the five nuns (from India, Madagascar, Rwanda, and Malta) also take care of abandoned elderly and vulnerable families.  In fact, the sisters visit, listen, bring smiles, so rare in these parts, and carry out so many small concrete gestures, all expressions of charity.  On the ground floor of their residence, they have organized a daycare that serves about one hundred children. The Missionaries of Charity have been present in Gaza since 1973.  They have since opened other houses in Nablus, Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

In the late afternoon, we attend a daily Mass that four times a week is celebrated in a neighborhood north of Gaza City where various Christians live and inhabited by refugees from the war of 1948.  There is a small chapel cared for by the Little Sisters of Charles de Foucauld inside a courtyard.  The central nave fills rapidly with women of all ages and with men and youth who position themselves in the back of the church.  In total there are about seventy people, all well dressed and very distinguished.  At the end of Mass, as it is custom, everyone stays to drink tea and we have the opportunity to meet them.  The majority of those present have a college degree. In the past they were able to move and travel as they pleased.  Many have family in Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan and sometimes in countries farther away such as the United States and Australia. The greatest heartache is not being able to see each other for over several years now.  No one obtains an exit permit from the Strip, with few exceptions.

One understands immediately that the problem is not economic.  It is difficult to find a stable job, but this is not the reason for their suffering.  Rather, they suffer with great dignity for the fact of not being free and of being forgotten.  They know that the world does not remember them as normal persons but considers them an integrated part of a system governed by some Islamic extremists.  For this reason, they are negatively judged as being almost guilty.  Due to the conflict with Israel and also lately to the Egyptian closure, they are not free to leave, to move, to plan their future in connection to the world; nor are they free to express themselves.  Many moderate Christians and Muslims have lost their jobs in the army, in the governmental departments, hospitals and schools because of their faith.

On Saturday afternoon we had the good fortune to meet two distinguished Muslim women from a good family who have been active for some time in bringing help to the poorest.  After last year’s war, they started visiting the affected families in the refugee camps in the north.  Many had lost their homes and are currently living in tents or shacks located beside the ruins of their homes.  With the two women, we visited a couple of families with eight or nine children each.  One of the fathers had lost both legs during the war.  These were poor and simple people, with no political or party affiliations.  They receive no aid and no one is concerned enough to offer them new lodging.

On the other hand, it is also true that to repair damaged buildings and to construct new homes is very difficult, especially due to the lack of building materials such as cement, rebar, bricks and wood.  None of these materials can pass through the Israeli crossing and rarely through the Egyptian one.

The parish priest reminds us that for the Christian minority, life in Gaza is not simple.  They are sometimes insulted and, at the first misunderstanding, beaten.  The episodes of discrimination, including by institutions, are on the rise.  During the Christmas holidays, the local authorities distributed a flyer that prohibited anyone from greeting and extending best wishes to Christians.  “It was a great shock for all of us,” says the priest “but also and above all for the moderate Muslims, teachers in our Christian schools and for numerous friends of the parishioners.”

There are two Christian schools, one run by the Latin Patriarch whose pastor is the director, and one run by the Sisters of the Rosary, whose founder, Maria Alfonsina Danil Ghattas (Maria Soultaneh) was recently beatified in Nazareth.  This order was born in the Holy Land and has generated many local vocations.  There are three nuns in Gaza who belong to this order; two from Palestine and one from Jordan.  The Arab nuns have much more difficulty in obtaining an entry visa for the Gaza Strip. For four years now, their permit must be renewed every two months, at the end of which they much return to Jerusalem and wait from ten to twenty days for the Interior Ministry to renew their visas.  The fact that they are devoted to charitable works does not help and is not considered an element of merit to expedite the release of their visas.

Saturday evening we are invited to dinner by a group of young couples who actively help in the parish.  They talk of their initiatives, their work, and their children.  No one complains or asks for help.  The impression that we have is that all of them have a strong, simple faith.  It strikes me that many of them regularly pray the rosary together, as a family and among friends.

A young mother takes me aside to tell me that it is sad that in the past five years she has not seen her siblings who live in Ramallah (in the West Bank, just outside of Jerusalem).  Last Christmas she tried again to have permission to visit the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, granted at that time to Christians by the Israeli government.  However, this year also the permission was denied to her and she confesses to me to have cried and to have suffered greatly.  She told me that she will have to wait until the age of 35 to have a better chance (now she is 32).

During the course of the evening, the lights go out often, which soon will happen definitively.  They tell me that this happens regularly and that for many hours a day there is no electricity.  They use batteries and make romantic use of candles.

“Liberty… how dear, they know who for her sake have life refused”

-Dante, The Divine Comedy (Purgatory: Canto 1: 71-72)

This is the point.  The heart of man and woman searches and struggles for liberty.  “We do not have need of money, but of justice and of liberty.” This is the common refrain of all of the encounters during the weekend spent in Gaza, along with the particular desire of the Christian friends to be remembered, to have friends who pray with them, who suffer with them and who know how to bring joy to their hearts.

It is possible to be free in any situation of injustice and suffering; they know this and witness this with courage.

 


For more information, see the website of the Association for the Holy Land (ATS) http://www.associazioneterrasanta.org/

Pictures courtesy of Association for the Holy Land