For Christians in the Strip, the church is “the place where they have a home.” In order to control the pandemic, the authorities shut down all places of worship and imposed a curfew. No travel permits for Bethlehem and Jerusalem have been issued in a year. Despite this, there was no shortage of moments of celebration and sharing, like handing out food parcels and hygiene kits, even to some Muslim families.
Gaza (AsiaNews) – The restrictions imposed by the authorities to contain COVID-19, which is on the rise in the Strip, combined with Israel's blockade, have clouded the atmosphere of Christmas, which was low-key this year, said Fr Gabriel Romanelli, parish priest in Gaza, speaking to AsiaNews.
The faithful, he added, were “sorry” for the closure of places of worship because “they care a lot about the festivity’s liturgies. Moreover, the church is a spiritual and social centre for Christians, a place where they have a home.”
The Church of the Holy Family promoted “various initiatives” to keep alive the festive spirit, he explained. However, “The situation has worsened as the novel coronavirus spread. The lockdown was enforced on Friday and Saturday; every day, the night curfew starts at 6.30 pm until the morning.”
Christmas for Christians in Gaza is one of the few opportunities to leave the Hamas-ruled Palestinian enclave, where they are a tiny minority among two million people isolated in an open-air prison, to travel to Bethlehem or Jerusalem.
“If you consider the limits and restrictions, this year Israel has not issued a single permit,” said the Argentine priest of the Incarnate Word. “Now there's a new lockdown: a whole year without going out.”
Gaza’s Christian community and the other residents are trying to find a new normal, to live with the virus, even if the alert remains high, and fears, especially about the resilience of the health system, are increasing.
The data show a significant rise in the number of infections, with over 36,000 confirmed cases and more than 310 deaths.
“The authorities have closed all government and public offices as well as mosques and churches. Schools remain open for those in their final year and kindergarten for children.”
A few days ago, “we celebrated the Novena to Our Lady, as the Christians of the Holy Land do, with songs in Arabic and melodies in Latin, priests' sermons on the feast day. On the eve, we celebrated Mass at 6 pm due to the curfew.”
Only the nuns and few members of the choir were present at the service; the faithful followed the rite from their homes. “The Mass went live on the Internet,” Fr Romanelli said. It was “followed by the bingo with children's prizes and Christmas carols.”
To keep the festive spirit alive, the local Church handed out gifts to the little ones. “A rosary and chocolates,” he said.
This was followed by “prizes for adults, like a stove, an electric oven that also makes Arab bread, dishes and vases for the home, children's games, sacred objects such as icons and rosaries for young people, which are highly appreciated here.”
Some parcels were also handed out to the neediest families, including Muslim families, with personal hygiene kits, food vouchers to buy meat, bread and chocolate, to put on the table for the festivity.
“Of course, people were sad for the cases of coronavirus and for not being able to go to Bethlehem because of the restrictions, not to mention the fact that churches were open only to the religious.”
For this reason, “over the past weeks, we men of the cloth went out, to visit homes, with the Child Jesus, bringing the Eucharist. This way we keep our community alive.”