20 December 2015 will be one great day to remember.
It was the day of the Christmas celebration at the Holy Family Church in Gaza, celebrating with members of the heroic small Latin parish who call Gaza home.
Again I was fortunate to be one of the few people of my status, a Palestinian East Jerusalem “resident” of the State of Israel, to be granted a one day permit to go to Gaza, despite the ongoing ban. I accompanied the official delegation of his Beatitude Patriarch Fouad Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.
The St. Joseph scout troop was there to receive us upon arrival with traditional Palestinian and Christmas songs. The drums were louder than ever to announce the arrival of the delegation. Shortly after arrival, His Beatitude opened the Door of Mercy at the Latin Parish Church in Gaza before celebrating the Christmas Mass with the parish members and the clergy. He was assisted by Bishop Marcuzzo from Nazareth and some 10 priests from the Latin Patriarchate who all came specifically for the day. The Superior General of the Rosary Sisters accompanied the delegation as well as the Superior of the Order of the Fathers of the Incarnate Word, the President of the Christian Schools Commission in Palestine, the Rev. Faisal Hijazin, and the Rev. Raed Abu Sahlieh, Director of Caritas Jerusalem.
In his homily, the patriarch reflected on the Year of Mercy, as well as on his continued prayers for peace and justice in our region. He affirmed his continued support and that of the Catholic Church for the small Catholic community of Gaza. He stated that he continuously prays for them, especially for an end of the blockade of Gaza and for unity within the Palestinians so that the situation there will improve and they will live a better life in the near future. He asked the people to remain steadfast and reminded them that they are suffering on earth and truly living the life of our Lord Jesus Christ who did not have an easy life in this land. He assured them that their suffering will not go unnoticed and that their rewards will be in heaven.
As soon as Mass ended, the renovated areas of the Latin parish complex were visited and blessed by his Beatitude. This included the newly renovated and refurbished parish center which was completely funded by CNEWA–Pontifical Mission. The renovated center includes a new library fully stocked with a variety of Christian books for all ages, as well as a new gymnasium with state of the art equipment, a sitting area and a kitchen, renovated rest rooms, and a large parish hall. During our visit, the first formal performance took place: a Christmas play by the parish children. All the children perfected their roles, and the long hours of practice as part of the CNEWA–Pontifical Mission “Oratorio” program paid off.
Aside from the official celebrations, there was noticeable respect granted to the official delegation by both the Israeli authorities at the Erez Crossing, as well as by the Palestinian government officials in Gaza who came to visit with his Beatitude and bid him and the parish congratulations for Christmas. Also noticeable was the large number of local and international press representatives who all wanted to interview many people so that the voices of the Christian community of Gaza are heard both locally and internationally.
One of the important people in attendance was Elias Manneh, the former Chairman of the Board of our partners, the Near East Council of Churches (NECC) in Gaza, who is now in retirement. He reminded me of a conversation we had six years ago when I first met him and we were discussing the dwindling Christian presence in Gaza as emigration was on the rise.
He said then: “Despite our small number, we are a force to be reckoned with. We are respected by the government and the larger community. Quality and not quantity is what counts in Gaza.” Our wish for this small, but brave community is to enjoy the Christmas celebrations in Gaza, Many confided that although Israel issued permits for a full month (20 December 2015 through 20 January 2016) to hundreds of Christians from Gaza to enter the West Bank and Jerusalem (as was the case in previous years) it was rare that a complete family received the permits. The ban on youth aged 16-35 continues; none in this age group was granted a permit. The Rev. Mario da Silva, the parish priest at the Holy Family parish, will celebrate midnight Mass in his beautiful church. Undoubtedly the same prayers heard today will be repeated again for pace and jkustice for all in our Holy Land, especially for our suffering people in Gaza.
This was my shortest visit to Gaza. Despite the great joy of being able to be there for the day to show our solidarity with our brothers and sisters, I left with a heavy heart, knowing that most of them will not be able to join us in Bethlehem for the celebrations. Please keep the people of Gaza in your prayers and join me in wishing them a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!