Church Leaders Plead for Humanitarian Corridor in Gaza

This story was originally published in the Catholic Register.

Editors’ note: The following article features an interview with Joseph Hazboun, regional director of CNEWA’s Jerusalem office, about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

Patriarchs and heads of all the churches in Jerusalem have issued an urgent appeal to Israel and the international community to open a humanitarian corridor, to assist people caught in what many fear is an imminent humanitarian disaster in the Gaza Strip.

And while by 16 October no such corridor had yet opened, it appeared American and international mediators were close to reaching a deal that would allow humanitarian aid into the besieged Gaza Strip. 

A cycle of violence — with no end in sight — was set in motion on 7 October when the militant group Hamas caught Israel by surprise with a sudden, ferocious attack on Israeli military stations and settlements, killing over 1,200 Israelis and taking over 100 hostages.

Retaliation was swift, with Israel pounding the Gaza Strip with airstrikes, killing upwards of 2,600 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.

Israel has also demanded that over one million civilians relocate from the north of the Gaza Strip to the south, the prelude to an expected incursion by Israeli forces, which the church leaders and others fear will worsen the already desperate humanitarian crisis.   

The Christian leaders made the plea for a humanitarian corridor after an emergency meeting they convened when news of the Israeli military’s evacuation order broke.

“Our beloved Holy Land has changed dramatically over the past week. We are witnessing a new cycle of violence with an unjustifiable attack against all civilians,” reads their statement.

“The order to evacuate the north of Gaza and to ask 1.1 million people — including all the members of our Christian communities there — to relocate to the south within 24 hours will only deepen an already disastrous humanitarian catastrophe. Many civilians in Gaza have said to us that there are no realistic ways in which they can evacuate to safety in any direction. We call upon the state of Israel, with the support of the international community, to allow humanitarian supplies to enter Gaza, so that the thousands of innocent civilians may receive medical treatment and basic supplies.”

By 12 October, Gaza was on already the brink of collapse.

“The situation in Gaza is horrible,” said Joseph Hazboun, the Jerusalem-based regional director of the pontifical agency Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), adding that its population was now under a total blockade, and that electricity, water, food, fuel and other essential supplies were completely cut off. 

“The Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing was damaged by Israeli airstrikes and is the only humanitarian corridor for people and supplies,” he pointed out. “International humanitarian organizations are mobilizing efforts to allow supplies through this crossing.”

He emphasized that the majority of people in Gaza are not politically affiliated, and all they want is a normal, peaceful existence in their native land.

The unprecedented violence has also left CNEWA’s programs in limbo, Mr. Hazboun said.

“All our programs have stopped. Schools are closed in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Our three-year extracurricular activities program is on hold,” he said. 

He listed several other programs and projects that had to be suspended including pastoral activities and projects in several cities, including the three-year psychosocial and employment programs at the Arab Orthodox Cultural Center. The cultural center has now become a refuge for over 3,000 Gazans.

Asked about the toll that the violence is taking on Christian communities he replied: “The Christians are in shock. I don’t think they realize exactly what is happening to them. They are hardly dealing with the continuously changing reality on the ground. In a span of five days, they found themselves as refugees at the churches. They cannot believe what is happening to them.”

He said a number of Christian families who have been displaced or their homes destroyed have sought shelter with relatives or in local churches. The Latin and Orthodox churches are hosting close to 400 Christians whose homes were damaged or because of heavy airstrikes on their neighborhoods, he said.

Other Christian institutions, noted for their outstanding services to people of all faiths, also had to be shuttered, he added. The Rosary Sisters (a religious order founded in 1880 by Marie-Alphonsine Danil Ghattas, a Palestinian nun) have had to close the girls school they ran, he said. 

“Their school is closed of course They did not dare to go outside, tour the premises and check for damages. However, they have already seen that pergolas have been damaged,” Mr. Hazboun reported. “In addition, they are now hosting 30 Brazilians who sought refuge at their convent, at the request of the representative of Brazil in the West Bank.”

He said the situation in the West Bank is equally calamitous.

“The West Bank has been put under total closure. Cement blocks have been placed on all the roads that lead to checkpoints or on roads connecting the various Palestinian cities, preventing Palestinians from entering or leaving,” said Mr. Hazboun.

He expressed concerns that the tiny Christian community will be reduced even further in numbers.

“I have no doubt that following the war, a good number of our Christian community members will opt to leave and never come back,” he said. 

He said CNEWA is now concentrating its efforts on humanitarian and emergency support to help provide food and water for the people taking refuge at various institutions.

Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Catholic official in the Holy Land, together with other Christian leaders in Jerusalem, have called for a day of prayer and fasting on 17 October for peace and reconciliation.

The cardinal has appealed to Catholics to organize times of prayer with Eucharistic adoration and recitation of the rosary to deliver to God “our thirst for peace, justice and reconciliation.”

“Prayer and diplomatic channels are the only way to protect the innocent civilians in Gaza today,” the CNEWA regional director said. “Therefore, it is very important to take active part in organized prayers and calls for fasting and prayer, and may the Lord continue to extend his protective hand over us all.”

Regina Lynch, executive president of Aid to the Church in Need International, another pontifical charity, issued a similar statement.

“As Christians, we believe that prayer is a powerful weapon against evil and a source of hope and healing. That is why we invite you to join us in a campaign of prayers for peace in the Holy Land.” 

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