Archbishop Pizzaballa: a "vibrant" Christian community in Gaza, stronger than isolation

Over the weekend the apostolic administrator carried out an "intense" three-day pastoral visit.  In spite of the "isolation fatigue", the faithful create new families, build centers and work activities, work for the future.  Still uncertainty about exit permits, a "political issue".


Jerusalem (AsiaNews) - In the face of the enormous "difficulties" that the inhabitants of the Strip are experiencing, and "Christians are no exception" in a context characterized by a "heavy climate, I was able to experience the liveliness of a community" that "succeeds in vibrabtly prepare for the celebration”.  This is what the Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of the Latins, Msgr.  Pierbattista Pizzaballa had to say on returning to Jerusalem after a "three intense days" of a pastoral visit to Gaza.  "This year - emphasizes the prelate - there remains the expectation and uncertainty regarding the issuing of visas" which represent one of the few "opportunities to leave".  To date the permits "have not arrived", but the faithful have not lost hope.

The choice by the Israeli authorities not to allow the Christians of Gaza the permits to spend the festivities in Jerusalem, Bethlehem or Nazareth confirms the grip on the Strip, controlled by Hamas and recently the scene of a new escalation of violence.  Last year the Israeli authorities had granted permits to 700 Christians;  today there is still the possibility to travel out of the Strip, but not to the holy places.

During the three-day visit, the apostolic administrator met the parishioners, inaugurated and blessed new structures, participated in Christmas representations and administered the sacraments of Communion and Confirmation.  The most important moment was the celebration of Mass in the parish of the Holy Family, an anticipation of the solemn function for Christmas.  "I met a lively community, not resigned" despite the difficulties.  A reality with great spirit of initiative, in fact “every time I go to Gaza I have to bless something new.  This year it is the Saint Thomas Acquinus center aimed at young people, then a new school”.  Despite the isolation "they do not close in on themselves, but commit themselves with a spirit of initiative".  Nevertheless, the prelate admits, "worries about the progressive thinning", a long-standing problem that distinguishes different Christian realities in the Middle East.

The Gaza Strip has been repeatedly defined in the past as the largest open-air prison in the world: two million people live within it below the threshold of survival, unemployment is at 60%, poverty at 80%. And the same is true for Christian families, around 300 in the whole Strip (a thousand people in total), 34% of which have no source of income.

 "This closure undoubtedly weighs  heavily - continues Msgr.  Pizzaballa - but hope remains, fueled by the sense of belonging that creates a context of relationships, which is vital in these circumstances: it is fundamental to break the isolation ".  Furthermore, among the positive signs “there is also the continuous formation of new families, young people get married and start activities to create work, they hope for permits to be able to leave.  Of course, some suffer the context more than others and admit fatigue". 

Regarding the visas denied by Israel, the prelate admits that "it is difficult to understand what the situation is, because we do not have clear and defined indications in this regard".  There are rumors that "some will come" and to date "there is no generalized formal rejection".  "We are - he continues - in this limbo and rumors are ciriculating in one direction or another".

Israel justifies its refusal to issue visas with security issues.  The prelate stresses that the Christian community in Gaza "poses no security problem", but it is a "political issue" that embraces the entire West Bank and also involves Christians.  "They do not grant visas - he continues - because otherwise they should do so also with Muslims on the occasion of Ramadan" and, to this, we add cases [isolated] of the faithful who have taken advantage of the exit to move permanently out of the Strip.  Despite problems and difficulties, concludes Msgr.  Pizzaballa, “it is important to talk about the Christians in Gaza and the question of the Strip itself must no longer be left outside of international agendas.  We have to keep attention focused on this, otherwise,  Gaza would be consigned to oblivion ".