Monday, August 18, 2014

Gaza #themoreyouknow

Below is a letter I received in my email this morning from Terra Sancta Pilgrimages (who I had the pleasure of traveling to the Holy Land with). It offers a first hand account of Christian Palestinians living in the Gaza strip (lest we forget that Palestinian is a nationality,  not a religion).  Please read!

"We want to share with you a wonderful article about the Catholic Church in Gaza written by a friend of ours who works with the Holy Land.  He is a Knight of the Holy Sepulcher.  I hope you profit from it and pray for the courageous sisters, priests and laity who stand strong as the living stones of the land there."- Terra Sancta

Gaza: The Best of Us
Gaza. A word that is rarely associated with positive images. Yet, it is here that the strength and love of the Church in action is best on display.

According to Sami El-Yousef, CNEWA's regional director for Palestine and Israel, “Our churches and Church institutions in Gaza provide a beacon of hope despite all of the misery, Holy Family School, the Greek Orthodox parish and its' Cultural Center have all opened their facilities to hundreds of displaced families, giving them food, clean water and above all a safe roof over their heads. The Anglican run Al Ahli Hospital, continues to open up its facilities in this emergency crisis to anyone needing medical treatment, without charge. Incarnate Word Father Jorge Hernandez continues to risk his life every day by making home and hospital visits. The Missionaries of Charity continue to call Gaza home despite the various offers for evacuation.” The Daughters of Charity and other religious orders have also stayed.

Despite being warned to leave Gaza and with their residence damaged by Israeli shelling; the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity have silently continued their work amid an Israeli troop ground offensive. “We have taken the Fourth Vow — of giving wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor, no matter what the circumstances. We are privileged to serve in Gaza, which is one of the poorest places in the Middle East. As for the raids, we have got used to the sound of the bombs exploding. We have learnt to live with it,” Sr.Liliet says. Their Convent is in Gaza City and their Superior Sister Belfina says that they are “not going anywhere” war or no war. They have in their care over 24 disabled children and 15 elderly women whom they will not leave. The House of Christ in Gaza, is a care home dedicated to looking after them.

Sister Liliet of the Order is from India. “The Indian office in Ramallah has been calling often, sometimes four times a day, to check on me. It offered to arrange for my passport and papers so that I can return to India... But I don’t want to go back,” she says. “The bombings have caused a lot of damage... the borders are closed. People’s houses are being destroyed. Most of the children in our convent are from these villages. Their parents leave them here so that they are safe and are fed properly.” says Sister Liliet.

And this is not the first time the Sisters chose to remain with the people despite the danger. During the conflict of 2009, the Sisters stayed in Gaza despite being told to leave. They continued to bathe, feed and care for the incapacitated elderly and the mentally and physically disabled children as well as they could. Their home is located in the center of the city just behind Holy Family Catholic Church.

Sister Thertsen Devasia told Catholic News Service at the time, “We are OK. We go to Mass every day at the Latin church. Father sends his car for us and brings us back.” Some of the children had been terrified by the noise of the bombings, she added, but most do not react to their surroundings. A one year old girl who was living with them screams whenever she hears loud noises, the nun said. That year also, a 15–year–old Greek Orthodox girl died from a heart attack; unable to take the strain from the fear of the aerial attacks. “By the grace of God we are safe and we will stay here. If something happens to our people we will be with them,” said Sister Thertsen.

Gaza’s 1300 Christians are made up of some 310 families.  “All of them are concentrated in the city of Gaza, Fr. Raed explains.  “So they are in the middle of the conflict. The whole situation is difficult:  no electricity, no water, day and night bombardments, missiles from both sides." “I am describing the situation but to see the photos and hear these stories, it’s really beyond your imagination!" says Fr. Raed. "It’s like in the Second World War which means wholesale destruction.  They are targeting everybody: civilians, women, children and hospitals. Churches are trying to help them, providing them with food, with gasoline, with milk for their children."

Recently, the Holy Family Church in Gaza had also received an evacuation order warning them that Israel was planning to bomb their neighborhood that night. Father Raed Abusahlia, president of Caritas Jerusalem who has been in contact with the parish priest, told Catholic News Service that Father Jorge Hernandez of the Institute of the Incarnate Word and the three nuns who live at the parish had nowhere to evacuate the severely disabled children and elderly women in their care.  "How will they manage to leave? If anyone can intercede with someone in power, and pray, please do it. "
Since Israel launched airstrikes against Gaza, it has sent text messages to citizens to evacuate if they will be near a target. Israel bombed near Holy Family Catholic Church the morning of July 30. Father Hernandez, said the main target of the bombing was a home a few meters away from the parish. The home was completely destroyed, and the parish school, office and some rooms used by the parish were partially destroyed. Father Abusahlia told CNS all the windows of the whole compound, as well as that of the Greek Orthodox Church, already were shattered from previous bombings of buildings around them. 

Sami El-Yousef, CNEWA's Regional Director said that the clinics run by the Near East Council of Churches in Gaza “are all shut down because they operate in areas that are way too dangerous to reach.”  

Churches have opened their doors to numerous displaced people, giving refuge to as many as they can. “In our Holy Family school the number of refugees was days ago, 700.  Today, we reached 1,100 people living there.  In the Greek Orthodox church, days ago the number was 1,100 people.  Now, it is 1,900 people. Caritas has been providing them with powdered milk, diapers and gasoline, which is especially important after the attack on the Gaza electrical plant", according to Fr. Abusahlia.

"Everything happens around us," he said. "And we cannot do anything. We cannot evacuate, it is impossible with children. Their families live here. It is more dangerous to go out than stay here. We try to stay in safer places, always on the ground floor." Fides quoted Father Hernandez as saying: "We had a tough night, but we are here."

Despite the violence, the Church continues to build bridges. There is the increasing solidarity between the Christian minority and Muslim majority. This is growing in Gaza as both suffer under the Israeli offensive, with churches sheltering all religions and with prayers being offered up on all sides. The church has become a haven not just for Christian but also hundreds of Muslim families seeking shelter there as the offensive drags on. “The church has been our hosts for the past two weeks, offering food, clothes and whatever we needed, their loss is our loss, their pain is our pain,” says 45-year-old Mr. Abu Khaled. Father Manuel Musallam, a former priest of Holy Family Parish in Gaza, has always been an advocate for unity. Father Musallam told the Muslim community, “When they destroy your mosques, call your prayers from our churches”. 

Recently, an Israeli missile hit the house of the Ayyad family. The Ayyads, who are Christian, were the first family among the tiny minority in Gaza to be targeted since the offensive began three weeks ago. Sami El Yousef said that, although the Israeli army apparently warned the family that their home would be targeted, a missile flew through their roof and into the home before they were able to flee. Jilila Ayyad was killed instantly; her son, Jeries, survived, but sustained extensive burns and shrapnel wounds that required the amputation of both his legs.

A memorial service was held on Sunday for Jalila at Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church. She had to be buried three hours after her death “because there were no places left in the hospitals." In something that surprised local journalists, both Christians and Muslims carried out Jalila's remains together. Shared wounds and mourning are bridging past divides in war torn Gaza. “The world must realize that Israel’s missiles don’t differentiate between Christians and Muslims,” said Abu Khaled.

Another example of the Church at its finest are workers like George Anton, a CNEWA team member. He “leaves his young family on a daily basis and risks his own life to visit local institutions and individuals in order to assess the situation on the ground,” CNEWA's Regional Director said. "He shares the lives of ordinary people affected by the war, the displaced families housed at the Holy Family Catholic Church, the hundreds of injured patients at the Anglican-run Al Ahli Hospital and the devout Muslim women and their children taking refuge at the ancient Greek Orthodox church: which itself had sustained damage by Israeli artillery shelling."

"Despite all of the suffering,” El-Yousef writes, “the Christian mission is certainly at its best. These brave souls — who are personally risking their lives — continue to comfort the injured and displaced, and provide assistance to the weak and marginalized with the Gospel in their hearts. Please know that your support and prayers for the people of Gaza, especially the women and children, are priceless and help to keep hope and faith alive.”
The Latin (Catholic) Patriarch in the Holy Land says of the situation: "Their families are in need of everything. We do what we can with Caritas and the resources of the Patriarchate, but we get little concrete and effective support from the outside. Messages and statements we read are not enough to say: we are with you".

As Sister Thertsen said, "If something happens to our people we will be with them”. When the best of us like Sister Thertsen can remain in Gaza while bombs literally fall around them: it is more important than ever, we take action and reach out to let them know that they are neither alone nor forgotten.

Interviews compiled from a variety of sources.

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