04/03/2021, 11.53
PALESTINE – ISRAEL
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Gaza parish priest: despite COVID-19, Easter is a time of lively participation for Christians

Cases of new coronavirus are on the rise in the Strip, but the pandemic has not stopped the desire for participation. Once more, Israel has not granted any travel permits, using the health emergency to keep tight control. For Fr Romanelli, at a time of uncertainty, faith is strengthened: “let us feed the desire to live through works and prayer”.

Gaza (AsiaNews) – In Gaza Strip, Holy Week is a time “of great participation, with over 90 per cent of Catholics present at the services, together with dozens of Orthodox,” said Fr Gabriel Romanelli, parish priest of the Incarnate Word in Gaza.

Speaking to AsiaNews about the atmosphere in the Palestinian territory, the Argentinian clergyman noted the “uncertainty” over the rising number cases of COVID-19, the deep desire to “participate in Easter celebrations”, which did not take place last year at the start of the global health emergency, and the “hardships” faced by a community “shut out from the outside world”.

While the light at the end of the tunnel can be seen in Israel and Jerusalem, as Patriarch Pizzaballa said, in the Strip the pandemic adds to the suffering of a people who have long lived in an open-air prison but who “have not lost faith”.

“Despite some restrictions, people here in the parish can live and participate in all the celebrations. The [Hamas] authorities have imposed a ban on travel by car, but people can go on foot or bicycle.

“Christians were granted special permission by taking down license plates, because so many live far from the church which they can only reach by car. Last year at Easter only men and women religious were present, while this year we can celebrate with our people.”

Looking at the numbers, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be expanding with more than a thousand cases on 30 March, the highest figure in recent months.

While Gaza is going through a surge, the number are down in Jerusalem and Israel, thanks to the massive vaccination campaign undertaken by outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ahead of the recent general election.

The “epidemiological situation” is very dangerous with more than 65,000 cases and 610 deaths of a population of two million, said Magdy Dahir, an official with Gaza’s Health Ministry.

Until recently, the Strip’s isolation had protected it but in October the virus managed to get in.

“Despite the pandemic, the faithful want to be present,” explained Fr Romanelli. “They did so in recent days at Masses, rosaries, confessions, with the Way of the Cross staged last week with many young people (pictured)

“On the Palm Sunday, the scouts prepared the procession; after so many years they played drums and bagpipes again.

“On Holy Thursday, on the occasion of the washing of the feet, there was at least one representative of each Catholic family in Gaza. We are 133, 13 men and women religious, so the number is small but the faith and sense of community are deeply rooted”. 

“Today, the distribution of eggs, chocolate and blessed water is planned, while tomorrow we plan the solemn Eucharistic procession with the risen Christ.

“In part, these events also affect Muslims since those who live near the parish church or are close to Christian organisations never fail to wish us well. The same cannot be said about the authorities who prefer to extend their wishes at Christmas, when the birth of Jesus is celebrated. They tend not to officially recognise death and resurrection.

“However, in terms of dialogue, Pope Francis' trip to Iraq was important, because it gave new visibility to Christians and highlighted their role and importance in the Middle East, while condemning in no uncertain terms terrorism committed in the name of religion, including Islamic terrorism when he referred to the Islamic State group.”

The impossibility of leaving the Strip to celebrate in Jerusalem or with friends and relatives in the West Bank is a source of great regret. Israel was not inclined to issue many permits in the past; with the COVID-19 pandemic, the few became zero. It has been virtually impossible to leave for more than a year.

“Israel has not shown any sign of openness, and we foreigners must obtain more permits: passport, religious visa, green light from military authority and now a procedure that involves the diocese, a third party organisation and the Israeli authorities, which then give the go-ahead.

“Red tape has gotten worse . . . It is a good thing that Hamas, better than many governments of the 'Christian' nations in the West, has allowed celebrations to go ahead here in the Strip. Moreover, the people of Gaza have long been accustomed to living in a prison, so they take the further restrictions and bans with irony, saying 'we have always been confined’.”

What remains is the desire to live the faith with great joy and hope, because “the pandemic will end one day, as did the wars and great tragedies of the past.”

Faith is the spark to allows people “to find courage. This is my invitation for Easter: We must go back to church, go to Mass, experience the celebration with joyful faith, anchored in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

For Fr Romanelli, “The second thing is not to lose the shared sense of meaning. All this shall pass, but in the meantime, we must not abandon the poor and the elderly nor not neglect ourselves. Let us not give up; let us feed the desire to live through works and prayer. . . We are waiting for hot weather to go to together on an outing to the beach.”

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