Sister Nabila Saleh with several children, at the Rosario Sisters School, Gaza Photo: ACN

How Does the Conflict Between Israel and Palestine Affect Christians?

The majority of the baptized are Arab Palestinians, although there are [also] thousands of labourers, students, Religious and priests of different countries

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(ZENIT News – Aid to the Church in Need/ Madrid-Gaza, 31.10.2023).- Just a few weeks ago, on September 30, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa was appointed Cardinal in Rome. The Christian community of Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Cyprus , the countries that make up his diocese, was joyful. Who could predict the symbolism of the meaning of the red hat that Cardinals receive — colour that signifies the blood shed by martyrs, and Cardinals’ willingness to suffer for the Church.

Exactly a week later, on October 7, Hamas’ brutal terrorist attack took place in the south of Israel, which unleashed a counter-attack and state of war that has left more than 5,000 mortal victims — 3,600 Palestinians and 1,400 Israelis — and 10,000 wounded. More than 150 people continue being kidnapped by the terrorists.

Since then, like the rest of the population, the Christian community of Israel and Palestine, under the leadership of Cardinal Pizzaballa, is living in an anguished situation of uncertainty and fear.

Gaza: “We Stay with Our People”

On one hand there is the small community of Gaza, where some 150 Catholics remain that, together with 350 Orthodox Christians, have sought refuge in the Catholic parish of the Holy Family in Gaza. With them are a priest and women religious of three Congregations. In total, it’s estimated that some 1,000 Christians remain in Gaza, including Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants.

Despite the Israeli Government’s order to evacuate the north of Gaza, Sister Nabila Saleh, the Sisters of the Holy Rosary and partner of projects of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), said to the Foundation: “We need medicines. Many hospitals are destroyed. Our school has also been damaged but we will not leave. The people have nothing, not even the most basic. Where are we going to go? To die in the street? We have elderly people here. Mother Teresa’s Sisters are also here, with people with multiple disabilities and elderly people . . . Where can they go? We will stay with them. Pray for us. May this madness end,” she begs.

Sister Nabila has not slept for three days. The death of 500 people in the patio of the Anglican Hospital on Tuesday night, October 17, caused her untold suffering, such as the images of the destruction caused by air strikes and the total abandonment of the neighbourhood in which the nuns had their school in Gaza.

The Israeli Government’s threats to launch a ground offensive  and invade Gaza is one of the great fears of Christians of the whole region. In the first place because of what this means for the civilian population of Gaza, the unspeakable number of deaths it would cause on both sides and also Hamas’ possible reaction to the attack, which states it still has 5,000 missiles and, although 85% of them might be intercepted by the protection system and radar, the rest is sufficient to cause terrible damage among Israel’s population, also here in Jerusalem.

The West Bank: “Many Had Nothing, Now They Are Destitute”

The Christians in the West Bank — it’s estimated that there are some 37,000 — are also living a situation of uncertainty and fear. Israel is in a state of war. Over 90% of pilgrims and visitors have left the country, pilgrimages and tours have been cancelled until January 2024. “This implies a terrible crisis for the economy of many Christian families, as it is estimated that 70% of Christians work in the tourism sector. Many of these Christians lived from the sale of souvenirs or were bus drivers or receptionists,” explained the George Akroush Foundation, another partner of ACN projects.

“Those suffering from chronic diseases are in a terrible situation, but also food, rent payment, water and electricity are a problem. Many were already poor, they had almost nothing, now they are in absolute destitution,” said Akroush.

Another great problem is the closing of check points, control posts, to access Israel. Many Christian families prefer to live in the West Bank because they have better access to education for their children and his is very important for them. They live there and go to work in Jerusalem. Because of the state of emergency and security reasons, they have not been allowed to cross the check points and enter Israel since October 7.

The Center of Spiritual Formation of Beit Jala is in the West Bank, a project supported by several organizations, including ACN. The Center was inaugurated officially a few weeks ago and was intended to be a place of exchange and encounter between the Seminary and the community. In recent days it has become a branch of the Latin Patriarchate, many of the collaborators who cannot move because of the closing of the check points, work from there.

Jerusalem, City of Peace . . . in  a State of War

Also in East Jerusalem, where there are some 10,000 Christians, the situation is becoming difficult. 40% of them lived from the tourism sector and many have lost their job. The hotels are empty. The tourists have gone and many of the buildings are being used as improvised lodgings for the reserve army and displaced families from the south of the country close to the border with Gaza. Many of the Christians that worked in them are no longer needed.

“However, faith is growing in hearts. In fact, the signs of solidarity are very great. Some people who have kept their job have decided to give 15% of their salary to the poorest families. The crisis is uniting many Catholics a lot, but the greatest difficulty is health care,” said Akroush.

From the Cenacle church, Father Artemio Vitores, a Spanish Franciscan, wrote the following to ACN: “I don’t want to be very pessimistic, but the current situation has little to do with peace. Jerusalem must be a sign of peace and concord for all; it is the city of God for Jews, Christians and Muslims. How difficult it is! Peace is a gift of God, but it is  obtained with the collaboration of all human beings.”

“The situation is very difficult, and we trust in the Lord that it won’t get worse. We must pray to the Lord and to Mary, the Queen of Peace, so that violence and intolerance will not reign, but that concord and love will prevail. And that pilgrims will be able to return to the Holy Land in peace and joy. Don’t forget us in your prayers!”

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