Canon Mark Madden explains why the Christian community in Gaza remain a source of hope and light and substance – even as their own survival becomes ever more at risk.
Just over a year ago, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, when talking about the Christian community in Gaza, said: ‘We are not a large number, but we are like salt... This salt gives food a new flavour, and that is our role as Christians. First, we must stay here and bring dynamism, dialogue, encounters and courage for the future to rebuild a society as strong as it was before, as we have always done in the past.’
The Patriarch is correct. Though small, the Christian Church in the Gaza Strip is a very powerful witness to everything we hold important about our faith and its members show an incredible heroism when practising the values of the Gospel – especially in the current situation of the pandemic.
The group of international bishops commissioned by the Holy See to visit the Holy Land on behalf of the Pope and the Church could not hold their annual meeting in the Holy Land this year and so met virtually instead. Most years the bishops will briefly visit the Christian community in Gaza to show them that the Church does not forget them – after all, for them to be living witnesses to their faith in a very difficult society, the Church must offer all the support they need.
Gaza is a strip of land some 25 miles long and between three and seven miles wide. It houses around two million people, making it one of the most densely populated regions in the world. Israel and Egypt have imposed a security blockade on the enclave since 2007. The World Bank says this has caused Gaza’s economy to collapse. Extreme poverty is visible, the unemployment rate is around 90 per cent and income per inhabitant is very low. Eighty per cent of the population are living below the poverty line and dependent on external aid.
In recent years, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) ceased all assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The previous American administration cut hundreds of millions of dollars of aid which has had a deadly effect on the already precarious lives of people in Gaza.
The Christian community there numbers just over 1,000 and includes only 132 Roman Catholic yet this small population acts a shining light in the midst of darkness. The Christian presence in Gaza is characterised by the depth of its roots and is at the service of the entire community, regardless of religion or belief. This Christian presence is evident more than ever during the current situation with Covid.
The first two Covid cases in Gaza were diagnosed in March 2020. Initially the spread of the virus was restricted to quarantine centres until August 2020, when a few cases were diagnosed in the community. As of mid-January, 47,000 cases had been reported and nearly 500 deaths registered, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. These numbers seem relatively small compared with other places, but owing to a very limited testing capacity the real figure is much higher.
Before the pandemic the healthcare system in Gaza was on the point of collapsing because of a chronic shortage of medicines, supplies, spare parts and poor general maintenance. The provision of basic services in Gaza is a key humanitarian concern. Hygiene and health conditions are extremely poor, with no good drinking water or heating – all of which undermines basic services already depleted by the 14-year blockade, recurrent hostilities and restrictions of supplies coming through the border. Many Gazans cannot even afford food supplements to strengthen their depleted immune system. Thirteen hospitals, including a Christian-run hospital, serve the Gaza population but have just 100 ICU beds between them.
At the start of the pandemic two hospitals, containing 500 beds in total, were designated for Covid patients and with the virus spreading there are no beds available to treat patients. The vast majority of people who desperately need hospital treatment are cared for at home by family and medical teams visiting as much as possible with the consequence of the virus spreading among those carers. Some families of more than 10 people live in two-bedroom apartments with infected family members. This is where the Christian community proves itself to be ‘salt and light’ in their society.
Caritas Jerusalem, part of the Caritas Catholic family of relief and development agencies, is working tirelessly to fill the gap where the healthcare system in Gaza cannot manage. Created by the Church in the 1950s, Caritas works to show ‘love between all peoples’ regardless of religion or belief. Recently, Pope Francis said that ‘a Church without charity does not exist’ and Caritas is fulfilling this mission in an almost impossible situation by serving the most vulnerable. The Caritas teams in Gaza have accompanied people through bombings, hunger and humanitarian tragedy and are now at the forefront in supporting those affected by the pandemic.
Since the first report of Covid in Gaza, Caritas’s emergency teams of doctors and nurses have carried out almost 5,000 visits to homes and have cared for over 10,000 individuals infected with the virus, who have all received in-home health assessments and medical care. Caritas Jerusalem have also contacted by telephone around 22,000 people in quarantine to offer advice and support. The work of these medical teams is not limited to people suffering with Covid as they also provide essential primary medical care services to those in mandatory quarantine. Caritas Jerusalem’s efforts are accompanied by those of the Church, demonstrated by Pope Francis’ donation of 2,500 Covid-testing kits to be used in Gaza.
Christians in Gaza are crying out for help to preserve their faith and community in an increasing difficult situation. For Christmas 2020, Hamas, the ruling political party in Gaza, decided to ‘limit interaction’ with Christmas celebrations, drawing sharp criticism from Christians both locally and around the world. This meant that non-Christians were forbidden to join in any Christmas celebrations or even wish their Christian neighbours a ‘Happy Christmas.’ A Christian journalist living in Gaza says: ‘We set an example for the world in not having any sectarian problems. Muslims and Christians in this region have always got on. Muslims join our Christmas festivities and we take part in Eid. Now the authorities want to stop this and divide us. Our Muslim friends can’t even wish us “Merry Christmas” anymore. As Christians we just want life to continue as normal.’
Around 50 per cent of the Christian young people there have no job opportunities, making many of them desperate to leave Gaza and settle elsewhere. In most years the Israeli authorities grant permits to allow the Christian community to leave Gaza to celebrate Christmas and Easter with family in other parts of Palestine; most never return home to Gaza. The stark reality is that if this migration continues, there will be no Christians left in Gaza within the next 10 years. The Catholic Church is trying to find ways to keep the young people in the community by providing a good education and creating job opportunities to support them and their future families. Indeed the role of the Catholic school is seen within the Holy Land as a means to justice and peace.
One such initiative is the St Thomas Aquinas Centre, established in 2018 in response to the international bishops’ visit and through the generous donations of local and international benefactors, including the English and Welsh Lieutenancy of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. This centre provides various educational courses including job creation skills, English, Computer Science and personnel management, all designed to support their career development in a Christian environment. Work experience is found for each student and most have been given full-time jobs once their courses have finished. The centre works with international partners to give students experience of other languages and cultures – especially important given that the vast majority of young people cannot travel outside Gaza. Through this enterprise their dignity is strengthened and they gain a sense of value and worth.
Without the Catholic Church, Gaza would be a lot worse than it is. Church institutions such as Caritas, the Christian hospital, the Catholic parish, the priests and the various religious orders help bring hope into a hopeless situation. Even so, the Christian presence is fighting for survival. They need people to fight with them to maintain their existence in an increasing difficult existence.
Patriarch Pizzaballa described the Christian community as ‘salt and light’ because of the faithful witness to the Gospel they show daily through their love and care to everyone, but the Christian presence is very unstable and we are asked not to forget them. Patriarch Pizzaballa adds:
‘I don't know what the future of Gaza will be. Certainly, this situation is shameful and cannot continue for long. I believe that these people have the right to a normal life. My wish for the Christian community is not to give up. Never. Not to allow a renouncing attitude, which at times is a temptation for us, but to prevail in the face of all the difficulties. I wish them to continue to have plans for the future – for their lives, for their communities, for their country. So, keep dreaming because if you do not dream, you cannot make your dreams come true.’
Remember our Christian brothers and sisters in Gaza in your prayers this Lent and Easter as they continue to be salt and light to all in their community.