2012-01-09 Vatican RadioAs 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. Philippa Hitchen is travelling with the bishops and went with a group of the Church leaders to the only Catholic parish in the Gaza strip.
“It was a cold, bright and sunny day as we drove out of Jerusalem on Sunday morning, against the rush hour traffic, heading southwest 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 is sealed off with a huge concrete wall topped by barbed wire and look out posts and very few people are allowed in or out at the heavily guarded crossings. Driving through empty fields and orange groves towards the Erez border, I was struck by group after group of young Israeli men and women in military fatigues, with combat boots and guns headed into the training camps we saw along the route. Once through the heavily protected security gates and passport controls, you enter another 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.
By contrast, our convey was greeted by women with smiling faces and children welcoming us with a marching band and drums as we drove into the compound of the Holy Family parish, 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 Moslem and Christian children, as well as a centre for the elderly and catechism programmes 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 Mass in the simple whitewashed church with bright stained glass windows, we sat and listened as 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 here love the Christians, one man said, while another mother complained 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. We made it through the first gate and across the eerie no-man’s land to the Israeli side in record time, with evident relief written all over the faces of our guides travelling with the visiting bishops. Yet as we headed back towards Jerusalem at dusk, I found it hard to forget the faces and voices of the women in particular at the Holy Family parish urging us to tell the world about their plight, 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.” Listen