12/22/2009, 00.00
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Gaza Christians hoping to go to Bethlehem for Christmas

Israel announces the issuance of special permits for the holidays. Delivery maybe 23 or 24 December. Only a year ago, 3 thousand Christians in Gaza were preparing to face the bombs of Cast Lead. Father Musallam, parish priest during the war: the permission to go to Bethlehem would be "a sign of hope for our families."

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) - Israel has promised Christians permits to exit the Gaza Strip during the Christmas holidays. Maybe, the authorisation will be issued on 23 or 24 December to allow the faithful after so many years to return to celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.  

Fr. Manawel Musallam, former pastor of the Church of the Holy Family in Gaza, tells AsiaNews that the permits should cover people over 35 years of age. "It would be a sign of hope for our families, but we still have no guarantees".   

The ban on leaving the Gaza Strip imposed by Israel forced nearly 3 thousand Christians in Gaza to watch the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land last May from a distance. The announcement by the Interior Ministry in Tel Aviv is a " return to the past," said Fr Musallam, "because until the first intifada it was normal for us to go to celebrate Christmas and the holidays in the Holy Places."  

The Catholic community of the Strip began to celebrate Christmas, as is tradition, on 20 December, during the Mass celebrated by Msgr. Fouad Twal, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. "He came to tell us that he is with us, to show us his support for us and to help us.  We asked him to put pressure on Israel, but also on the Palestinians to get permits and decent living conditions for all inhabitants of the Strip" .

 Only a year ago, the Gaza Christians celebrated Christmas in the midst of anguish. Two days later operation Cast Lead was unleashed, setting the city on fire from December 27 to January 18. Today, the wounds have not yet healed, tensions remain and the needs and poverty of the people are not yet a distant memory. 

In his Christmas message Fr. Musallam recalled the days of the war as "a disaster that engulfed us like a storm". Today he speaks to the Christ Child and recalls the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt: "Lord Jesus, when you went from Gaza, fleeing the threat of Herod, we protected you. We  nurtured you. We warmed your weakened body. We beg you: return to Gaza!”.

Fr. Jorge Hernandez, the new pastor of Holy Family, says that "Christmas a year ago was very sad, but our hope is to be able to truly celebrate this year." The successor of Fr. Musallam as leader of the Catholic community in Gaza, adds: "We pray that these holidays bring reconciliation between the Palestinian people, so the blocade may end and we may go to  Bethlehem."


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