For Gaza priest, a forgotten people sees hope in war to receive aid

Fr Mario da Silva, from Brazil, heads the Strip’s only Latin parish of the Holy Family. Young people are jobless, seniors have no pensions, and everyone wants to escape. The Church has undertaken some initiatives to meet needs. Jihadi infiltration is a danger. Gaza Christians are "heroes of the faith".

Gaza (AsiaNews) – People in Gaza "live day by day" in a situation that "is becoming more desperate". Many residents, including Christians, have been forced "to borrow" to buy some food and electricity," this according to Fr Mario da Silva, a Brazilian who heads the Latin parish of the Holy Family, the only one in the Strip.

Fr Mario’s parish is home to about 350 families, in an area wrecked by years of war and still subject to Israel’s blockade. "The emergency situation touches young (70 per cent unemployment) and old alike. After a lifetime of work, seniors do not have any pension and do not know how they will survive."

The 2014 war made life in Gaza even worse. The Strip is home to two million people living below the subsistence level. Unemployment hovers around 60 per cent with 80 per cent of the population living below the poverty line. This goes for Gaza’s 1,300 Christians, a third of whom are without any source of income.

"The situation in Gaza is hard,” Fr Mario said. “After the war, we received international aid. However, six months later they forgot about us, as if everything had been resolved. Instead, problems remain, like the lack of jobs, gas, water, and electricity." All this is concentrated in an area of only 360 sq km, that has become a huge open-air prison.

Lately, water and energy supplies are one of the most pressing problems people face. "On some days, there is electricity only for three hours. It's cold here and people do not know how to heat their homes. We have no drinking water because what comes out [the tap] is salty; hence, we have to buy bottled water."

Israel’s blockade after Hamas seized the Gaza Strip has disrupted energy supplies as well. "On average, we get eight hours a day but lately things have gotten worse." For this reason, the local Church wants to build solar panels on homes. Work "is starting now with the first ten houses" but it is just a drop in the ocean of needs.

For Fr Mario, the prevailing feelings in Gaza is "one of neglect and indifference" by the international community. Local Christians want other Churches and Catholics around the world to pay "more attention". Being closed off and isolated from the rest of the world "is certainly not helping to improve the situation."

"People here are starting to think seriously that it would be better to get into another war because then at least there would be aid. It is a sad and terrible thought but it shows how tragic things are.”

“The world pays attention to us only when there is a war. Fortunately, there are some groups and institutions like the Pontifical Mission, Friends of the Holy Land, and a few others who help us."

The local Church has tried as far as possible and with few funds available to create jobs and provide opportunities for a forgotten people. Christian institutions have enabled the creation of 34 jobs for young Christians in the Gaza Strip, but most people want to leave.

"The young people who were authorised to visit the holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem last Easter did not return,” the clergyman explained. “They remained in the city where Jesus was born and found a job, laying the foundations for a new life. That is why, here, people want to leave."

"Christians live mainly with debts, buying on credit from the supermarket and promising to pay later. Christian charities help out by paying off the debts. The jobless are forced to beg and count on the generosity of others."

The Church is also involved in “preserving the integrity of the faith, defending it, and teaching Christians how to live amid hardships and a Muslim majority."

For Fr Mario, his work is first and foremost a form of “spiritual outreach. Preserving the Christian faith is the foundation of our social work. We have to give them a decent life. Our attention goes to the sick, the suffering, those in difficulty with this spirit."

Gaza Christians are facing new challenges every day. The latest is the possible infiltration of Islamic State militants in the Strip. Some Islamic State groups are active in the Sinai Peninsula, where they killed seven Christians, causing a mass exodus. This is not far from the Strip and Jihadists might still get in.

The Gaza government has tried to stop this, but the situation is delicate. Here, unlike Syria or Iraq, there is no chance of fleeing because of the wall.

In such a difficult social, political, and religious context, Lent is a great time of joy and anticipation. "Many hope to visit the holy places,” Fr Mario explained.

At this time of the year, “The faithful focus on its religious and spiritual aspects. Upholding Christian values ‚Äč‚Äčlike forgiveness, charity, and fraternal love is hard. That is why Christians here are heroes. They know how to keep the faith in a hostile environment and stand more and more as an example for those, even in the West, who experience dimly and superficially their Christian faith." (DS)