05/17/2024, 11.45
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Card. Pizzaballa among the war victims. And Fr Romanelli remains in Gaza

Patriarchate spokesman Farid Jubran tells AsiaNews: the community "happy and surprised" by an "unexpected" visit resulting from the patriarchate's diplomatic efforts. An "emergency" situation in which "food, doctors and medicines" are lacking. The humanitarian initiative of the Knights of Malta to meet the population's needs. The embrace with the vice-parish priest and the Greek Orthodox bishop. 


Jerusalem (AsiaNews) - "Now I am here with you, I love you and I accompany you, I follow with attention the news" coming from your community. "And be assured that we are working for a just, complete and true peace".

These are the words that the Patriarch of Jerusalem of the Latins, Card. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, addressed to the faithful of the Gaza parish during the first visit that the cardinal - accompanied by parish priest Fr. Gabriel Romanelli, who was also unable to reach the Holy Family for months - made to the Strip.

It was an unexpected two-day visit, but welcomed with joy by the hundreds of Christians who have been guests of the parish since the beginning of the conflict launched by Israel against Hamas, in response to the 7 October attack.

"They were very happy, surprised," the patriarch's spokesman, Farid Jubran, tells AsiaNews. "Very few knew about it, the deputy parish priest [Fr Yusuf Asad] and a few other people, but everyone felt very happy and encouraged in this witness of their faith. 

"The Gaza community is certainly not living an easy situation" and a situation of "worry, fatigue, tension and uncertainty about what will happen in the future" prevails, Jubran continues, however "they have a lot of faith" that allows them to face the difficulties.

'The emergency,' he adds, 'is first of all physical because of the need for medicine, doctors, food. They don't even have hygiene products, the necessities of everyday life, which are missing and cannot be found. Then there is the aspect of lack of belonging, because everyone experiences the condition of being a refugee in a closed place' and does not know 'what happens outside, to their families, friends and relatives'. 

According to the data provided by the Patriarchate, there are currently at least 500 refugees in the Holy Family parish compound in Gaza, the vast majority of whom are Catholics. Another 200 are guests of the Orthodox Church of St. Porphyry. Before the conflict erupted in October, there were 135 Catholics in the Strip, of whom there are now about 90 left after a small number managed to leave the war zone in recent weeks.

In addition to Card. Pizzaballa, since the first days of the conflict Pope Francis himself has followed the evolution of the situation with attention and concern, launching repeated appeals for peace and keeping in daily contact with the vice-parish priest and the nuns who have remained in the parish all this time. 

Card. Pizzaballa entered the Strip yesterday through a secret passageway and there is the utmost secrecy about the organisation and channels that allowed him to get the go-ahead from the Israeli government and army, which has been fighting a bloody war in Gaza against Hamas for months.

"One must consider that very few people," the patriarch's spokesman continues, "whether religious, politicians or ambassadors have had the opportunity to enter Gaza" and the cardinal "is the first" of this calibre and authority to do so.

"And he went," he adds, "to bring a message to the people, to give them a great signal of encouragement". This morning the cardinal "is still" in the Strip, the spokesman confirms, and at the moment "it is not yet known whether he will return [to Jerusalem] today or tomorrow", extending his stay by one night.

What is certain is "that the Gaza parish priest Fr. Gabriel Romanelli, who is accompanying the Patriarch on his visit, will be able to stay with his faithful in the Holy Family. For months," Farid Jubran emphasises, "he was prevented in his role" because at the outbreak of the war he was in Bethlehem on 7 October returning from Rome and the Israeli authorities had so far not allowed him, despite repeated requests and entreaties, to return to his people. "At least they have this encouragement, this element of strength: Pastor Romanelli is absolutely determined to stay". 

On his visit, Patriarch Pizzaballa is accompanied by Brother Alessandro de Franciscis, Grand Hospitaller of the Sovereign Order of Malta, by Fr Romanelli, missionary of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, and by a small delegation of others. Yesterday, the Cardinal presided at Mass in the Church of the Holy Family and visited the Greek Orthodox parish of St. Porphyrios, where he met the Archbishop of Gaza, Alexios of Tiberias, and the parish priest Fr. Silas Habib.

"The Patriarch," explained the spokesman, "had long wanted to go to Gaza, there had been various attempts to enter, but this time the opportunity to enter actually presented itself. We cannot elaborate more, say in detail how he entered, from where he entered, but the opportunity presented itself and he took advantage of it. We can say with certainty that this visit is the fruit of the work of the Patriarchate and confirms once again the bridging, peaceful role of the Church, which seeks first and foremost to maintain its presence'.

As the cardinal emphasised yesterday in his homily at Mass, they are going through "many difficult moments, tragic situations" but have remained "firm in their free choice to remain in this land and we are with you". 

"This whole visit," said Farid Jubran, "is a significant moment for the Patriarch both personally and as a pastor, and for all his people. From the photos I have seen, one of the most touching moments was the meeting with the elderly, then the embrace with the vice-parish priest, and again the meeting with the Greek Orthodox bishop in the Saint Porphyrios complex".

Finally, the visit also represented the first stage of a joint humanitarian mission by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Sovereign Order of Malta (SMOM), in cooperation with Malteser International (an NGO that is part of SMOM) and other partners. A joint initiative aimed at delivering essential foodstuffs and medical assistance to the population of Gaza. "The Patriarchate strongly supports this humanitarian project with the Knights of Malta," the spokesman concludes, "and we hope that it will continue in the near future.

(Photo by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem)

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