Father Gabriel Romanelli, the parish priest of the Holy Family Parish in Gaza, speaks to the L’Osservatore Romano about the hardships endured by Palestinian civilians, and in particular the small Christian community in the Strip.
By Roberto Cetera – Jerusalem
Father Gabriel Romanelli was in Bethlehem to buy some medicine for a nun when Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October, and since then he has been unable to return to Gaza. He has managed to stay in communication with the Holy Family Parish, of which he is the pastor.
Hie community is currently sheltering 700 displaced people and he would prefer to return immediately to his flock. “It is much harder for me to be stranded here than under the bombs in Gaza,” he said.
Speaking with L’Osservatore Romano in Jerusalem about the dramatic events of the past month, the Argentinian-born priest of the Institute of the Incarnate Word explained that since he started working in Gaza several years ago, life has never been peaceful for the Gazan population in the blockaded Strip, including some 1,000 Christians.
Q: Father Gabriel, what was your daily life like in Gaza until 7 October?
It wasn’t a peaceful life. It was an ordinary extraordinariness. They say now that the war began on October 7, but we have always experienced a climate of war. Of course, not as tragic as what we are suffering now, but in Gaza living with with sirens and explosions is a routine.
With me and Father Jusuf, there are the nuns of our own congregation, then 5 nuns of Mother Teresa, who have been doing extraordinary work for 50 years with the sick and disabled in particular, and then the Sisters of the Rosary of Jerusalem who work at the local school and in the parish. Since I have been the parish priest of Gaza, I have seen so many wars that I could no longer say the number: some lasting two or three days which statistics don’t ‘count’ as wars. It’s like a surreal story, because on the one hand you have all the activities you find in every part of the world, offices, businesses, shops, and on the other hand, every now and then the sirens, the bombs, the impossibility to move freely make your life impossible.
Even our life as religious follows this dichotomy: on the one hand, we have the daily Mass, the hour of Eucharistic adoration, spiritual care, and on the other an intense social activity to assist the suffering and the poor, and with young people, often until 11pm. And then we have our educational activity: though small, the Catholic community runs three schools, attended mainly by Muslims.
Q: What is the social status of the Catholic community?
It is difficult to say, because, despite their small number, Christians are divided into three groups, depending on their origin. The first group is that of the Palestinians who have always lived in Gaza. They are generally relatively wealthy, traders and professionals. This group that has decreased over the years because many have emigrated.
Then there is a second group is that of the refugees who arrived after the 1948 war: they came from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Ashkelon. Some of them managed to create a role for themselves in society despite having arrived as refugees with only a suitcase. When they arrived, the Catholic Church helped them integrate, in fact even today (there are only 11 families left) they live in a small neighbourhood which is called the Christian neighbourhood, where Caritas and the Thomas Aquinas Centre for the formation of young Christians have their headquarters. When they arrived they were first housed in the church. Some of them, who are old now, were born in the church or in the courtyard in front.
Finally, there is a third, more recent group that arrived in 1993, 30 years ago. After the Oslo Accords, Arafat sent a number of public officials to Gaza, many of them Christians, to ensure the administrative management of the Strip under the PLO government.
With the change of government in 2007, because of their loyalty to Mahmud Abbas, they were stripped of their duties, and now, although they remain employees of the central government of Ramallah, they receive only part of their salaries. Today they represent the weakest segment of our community.
Yes, perhaps the social status of Christians in Gaza is slightly better than other inhabitants of the Strip, but this is mainly due to social relief network set up by the Church. The Catholic Church is small but has an effective aid network.
Q: How small? How many Christians are there exacrly in Gaza?
I update statistical data every year at Christmas, based on Church registers. Last year Christians numbered 1,017. Of these, there are only 135 Latin Catholics, religious included.
Then we have a range of different situations: there are many mixed marriages between Latins and Orthodox, Orthodox who consider themselves Catholic. Many Orthodox participate in our parish groups. We have ten parish groups.
Our Church is already ecumenical: It is a bottom-up ecumenism that is more widespread and practical than theological disputes. So, we are a total of a thousand people out of a population of almost two and a half million inhabitants amounting to 0,0 per cent something.
Despite this small number, however, as I said, we run three schools, and more than ten ambulances equipped by Caritas. During the pandemic more than 60% of Covid cases in Gaza were treated by our Caritas, more than the Gaza Ministry of Health and that of the central government.
We have three charitable works: two homes for disabled run by the Sisters of Mother Teresa, one children and one for adults.
And then we have a home for what we call the “butterfly children”, that is, children affected by epidermolysis bullosa, which is an untreatable syndrome which makes the skin fragile to the point of bleeding and causing the formation of blisters all over the body. It is a genetic pathology caused by endogamy: in Palestine, marriages between blood relatives are still frequent.
We also have Caritas, the St. Anthony group for the poor. In short, there are several initiatives to support the poorest and the sick. Obviously, all these activities are not addressed only to our small community, but to the entire population, regardless of religious affiliation. Everyone benefits.
Q: Here, from this point of view, I would like to ask you: how are Catholics seen by the Muslim majority?
They are generally well considered. I hope this war does not also ruin relations between people. I can say that we have never had major problems with interreligious relations. Some expressions of radicalism have never caused us real damage.
Q: You have lived in Gaza for many years, can you tell us how you have seen the progressive Islamization of the conflict? Palestinians didn’t have a fundamentalist tradition in the past.
What you say is true, even in my experience in Gaza I was able to observe this process which had already begun in the last years of the Palestinian Authority administration. I remember that immediately after the current group took over, the observance of the Haram, the prohibitions of the Islamic code of conduct, were introduced. Then over time, especially after the Muslim Brotherhood lost power in Egypt, the pressure decreased.
However, you must consider – I say this especially for your Western readers – that throughout the Middle East there is a different perception of the religious dimension. The people here are much more religious. As I sometimes say: in the Middle East even atheists believe.
In the past, for example, in the Palestinian leadership there were convinced communists who were also fervent and devout Christians. When I was in Beit Jala there was a staunch communist leader who bowed and wanted to kiss my hand every time we met. I said to him: ‘What are you doing?’ and he replied to me ‘But father, this hand raises the cup of the Lord, the Blood of Christ, every morning!’.
The Middle East is like that. Returning to your question, I couldn’t tell you to what extent the Islamization of society has occurred, whether by convention or imposition, the only thing I can say is that radicalization also feeds on the injustice of the conditions of life.
Let me make it clear. Been born in Gaza, cannot be considered a crime. Sixteen years of embargo, is like being in a prison. There has been only one way out of the enclave towards Egypt, but why emigrate to Egypt if your family relationships are in Bethlem, Jerusalem, Hebron? I realize that the whole situation is complex and difficult, but unless the solution of the problem of people’s freedom of movement remains on the top of the list, all the other problems become minor.
Even more so if peace is the priority: a peaceful life here is impossible. Every day you don’t know if you will be able to go to work or school the following day. And every day you don’t know when electricity will be turned off. Because, already in ‘normal’ conditions we only have four hours of electricity a day. You don’t know when to cook, turn on the washing machine, charge your phone, watch the news on television, and every day those four hours change, they are never the same.
Everyone in Gaza is trying to self-produce energy with renewables, but now the bombings have put out of order the rooftop systems. We are lucky in our church because we have 8 hours, because our roofs are full of solar panels, and people come to us to charge their phones. Can you imagine what it means to live for 16 years with 4 hours of electricity a day? Maybe from 4 to 7 in the morning.
And then, there is another problem: water. Little and of poor quality. Most of the population of Gaza has a problem with water. In short, ‘ordinary’ life in Gaza is not ‘ordinary’ at all.
We occasionally manage to communicate with our flock in Gaza these days, when the lines are active. And it is heart-breaking to see these 700 men, women, elderly people and children who have been crammed inside the church for 32 days now.
At the beginning there were around 500 but after the bombing of the Orthodox Church of San Porphirious another 200 joined them. With that bombing our community became even smaller: as I told you we were 1017, now we are 999. Eighteen are no longer here, they ended up under the rubble of ‘collateral damage’. I knew all eighteen of them, I knew their stories, their lives, their loved ones.
Q: Pope Francis’ phone calls have an enormous value for all of them. He has spoken to you, too.
Yes, and he spoke to me with the care and concern of a father. Being both Argentinians we spoke in Porteño (the Buenos Aires dialect, ed.).
Being a minority is tough everywhere, being a minority in the Middle East is tougher, being a minority in Gaza is much, much tougher. The majority around us is not hostile to us but ignores our existence.
Our parish is named after the Holy Family, because this Strip was trampled by the steps of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, fleeing towards Egypt. And today we too are on the run, from fear, from oppression.