For most of us, the Feast of the Ascension is an occasion of celebration – a time to raise our eyes beyond earthly things to reflect on the elevation of Christ into heaven.
But that’s not so easy to do on that small strip of Palestinian land called Gaza.
The tension in the Holy Land between Israel and Palestine has escalated alarmingly with the tangible fear of all-out war and death and destruction already in the air.
Gaza is suffering daily and nightly bombings, rockets are also being launched into Israel. As usual it is the people in the middle – men, women and children – who are suffering.
This morning we spoke to the Parish Priest of the Holy Family Parish in Gaza, Father Gabriel Romanelli. His community is very small, 133 people, but very active and they extend their support beyond the Christian Arab community to their Muslim neighbours.
The tension is palpable and the parish compound stands ready to offer refuge to those who might find themselves in need.
You can listen to our podcast, look at our photo gallery and read the transcript below.
Good morning, Father Gabriel Romanelli speaking. I am the priest of the Catholic Church in the Gaza Strip, Palestine.
The situation in Gaza is very bad. It started as a consequence of fighting between Israeli and Palestinian groups. It began the evening of 10 May following a tense month of violence in Jerusalem. Our Patriarch has made a very clear declaration about the situation. Before the situation in Gaza, the events of Jerusalem with the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood are what gave rise to this crisis.
We are good – our parishioners also – but the situation is very hard and it’s very bad because we have continuous bombing, night and day.
INTERVIEWER: You have a small Catholic community, but obviously you serve a much wider Muslim community, and I know you have a community of sisters, the Rosary Sisters, and houses for the disabled. How are they coping with this situation?
We are a very small community – 133 people. There are 1,077 Christians in Gaza altogether among two million Muslim citizens, Palestinians. So our Catholic Palestinian Arabic community is very small but very active. Thanks to God we have all groups from the oratorio, like a group for spiritual formation, and for the formation for children and young people with 170 members.
We started two years ago a school for altar boys, we have 23, it’s a good number and there are many Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, who participate in our groups.
We have a group for ladies and another group for the men of the parish, we also have the scout movement and so on.
We have a very strong relationship. In these days they are in their houses and unfortunately they can’t go to participate. For example, today is here the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord. So we will celebrate. But we will meet at 5pm Palestinian time and make the connection through Facebook.
We make contact by phone as well and we call the families, the Catholic and other Christian families, one by one. Also the many Muslim families that we know – we try to help them and strengthen our relationship and provide the help of the church. First of all, the spiritual help. For example, today I am in the parish but yesterday I was outside. My vicar, Father Yousef, an Egyptian priest of our Congregation of the Incarnate Word. I am a religious of the Incarnate Word congregation. Today my vicar today is outside to visit the Rosary Sisters and to visit some sick people. We start to contact them one by one and to know their needs. The spiritual needs, like I told you, to visit sick people, to bring the Holy Eucharist, offer the possibility of Confession, of unction, but also to show our closeness to them.
There are also the material needs, for example a lack of electricity. Until now, the people usually had eight hours of electricity a day. Now these hours are decreasing. This brings other problems. So this is one of the things we do to try to help and bring consolation for the population. First of all, our brothers and sisters – our parishioners, Latin and Orthodox – but also many, many Muslim families.
INTERVIEWER: Obviously, your parishioners, I’m sure, are staying inside, trying to stay safe. Are you able to keep in contact with them? And do you know how they are?
Yes, we keep the connection with our families through the telephone, WhatsApp, Instagram, and sometimes, like I told you, we start to visit them. Yes, we know where they are and we start to prepare, in case the problem becomes worse, to receive in our parish, the people in need. At the moment we don’t have casualties, the Christians, but some houses of Christians have lost their windows and their systems of electricity, their connection with other members of the family. Thanks to God, the parish compound is a sure place to be, so we start to arrange the parish in case people need a refuge.
INTERVIEWER: We all feel helpless watching on here in the UK. Is there anything at all that we can do, the Catholic community here in England and Wales?
What help do we need? I think there are three key things. First of all, the spiritual help, the prayer and sacrifices for this population and for all the people of the Holy Land – in Israel and Palestine, but particularly in Gaza Strip.
For many years we have been in a difficult situation, as you know, and so please pray for them, to offer the sacrifices – I ask you to pray for them.
Second, the existential or moral support. So to share the communications, to let the people know about the situation, the reality, it is necessary to be clear. It is not a good situation, but it’s necessary that people in the world understand the situation. It is necessary sometimes to show your closeness to the people so they feel that they are not abandoned. Third, the material help through, for example, the Latin Patriarchate, our diocese. If there are people that can help, it is necessary to help because the need is real. It is not imagined. There was a very real need before these days. So after this destruction, we will need – the people will need – material help.
I want to thank the Conference of Bishops, the priests, the people in all your countries – not only the USA and the UK. Also our friends – for example the Holy Land Coordination of bishops, for example. We feel like the Catholic Church is with us. It’s the hand of Jesus, the Lord, to console us, to comfort us, to give us power to continue to serve Our Lord Jesus and the Holy Virgin Mary. So thank you very much. And God bless you always.
INTERVIEWER: Father, thank you so much. Just to say, of course, you have the support of the Catholic community over here in England and Wales. Really, we want justice and peace in Gaza and the Holy Land and we’ll definitely be keeping you in our prayers. It’s such a concerning time. Hopefully speak to you soon. Thank you so much, Father.