Friday, December 29, 2023

Middle East Christians sad, but hopeful on Christmas amid constant Gaza bombardment


Amid ongoing bombardment of the Gaza Strip by the Israeli military — despite the Christmas season — Christian clergymen in the Middle East are decrying attacks on their community’s dwindling numbers.

“It was sad, but hopeful to see Christians celebrating Christmas inside the Holy Family Church because we still have a community there,” Father Rifat Bader told OSV News of the only Catholic parish in the Gaza Strip, located in Gaza City.

“They still have faith, and they also teach us how Christmas must be always spiritually deep in the hearts of the believers, rather than with outward decorations,” said Father Bader, who directs the Catholic Center for Studies and Media in Amman, the Jordanian capital.

However, “inside the church are many injured people and they don’t find any medical services or support,” he said of the 700 people sheltering inside the church since the Israel-Hamas war broke out in October.

“Father Yousef Assad administers holy Communion to all after the daily Mass, and especially to those injured who cannot walk. He is guiding and encouraging the people by directing them spiritually and pastorally,” Father Bader said of Holy Family Parish’s assistant priest.

“This is a great mission” for a priest in this difficult time, Father Bader said, “to stay and console them and to let them know we still hope that the attacks will stop and normal life will return. A lot of effort will be needed for the reconstruction of Gaza. But they ask for the support and salvation from God almighty,” he underscored.

Two Christian women, Nahida Khalil Anton and her daughter, Samar Kamal Anton, were killed Dec. 16 as they walked to the convent on the parish’s complex. “People are frightened after this and sleep inside the church, rather than in its offices or nearby school,” Father Bader said.

“Despite the suffering of the many martyrs and the injured, a delegation of the Holy Family Church visited on Christmas Day the Greek Orthodox St. Porphyrius Church also in Gaza City,” Father Bader said. “This would have been a usual yearly occurrence, but under the current circumstances of bombardments, the ruins outside, it showed that we can be together in unity and our faith can be greater.”

Suhair Anastas and her daughter, Zara Tarabey, sheltered in the Holy Family Church in Gaza for 42 days under bombardment.

“It was very scary. We’ve been through other wars in Gaza, but this was the scariest. You weren’t sure if you would have another day or not,” Anastas told OSV News.

The Jordanian-Palestinian women also have Canadian passports and said that Canada brought them out of Gaza Nov. 14.

“Until I left, we had sufficient water and food to keep us going until the humanitarian pause. Now, when I call my friends back at the church, things there are really bad,” she said.

“It doesn’t seem to be finishing. It was very tiring when we were there and now it’s triple the fear and tiredness they are feeling. You think when you are leaving you would feel OK, but you feel guilty leaving everyone else behind,” Anastas said.

Jordan’s ruler, King Abdullah II, lamented the absence of joy and peace in the region this Christmas. The deadly Israel-Hamas war has seen more than 21,000 Gaza Palestianians killed, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health, and humanitarian conditions worsen.

Jordan air-dropped food and humanitarian aid to people stranded in the St. Porphyrius Church, Gaza’s oldest church, on Christmas Eve. During the humanitarian pause in November, its military parachuted food and water to those sheltering in the Holy Family Parish.

“I think the Jordanian army was our Santa this year to bring these gifts to the people in need … on Christmas Eve,” said Father Bader.

St. Porphyrius Church was struck by Israel Oct. 19 as it sheltered 200 Palestinians displaced by the war, leaving 18 dead, according to religious officials.

Clergy are decrying attacks on other Christian landmarks including one by Israeli forces on the historic 600-year-old Deir Mimas Monastery in south Lebanon a day before Christmas Eve. 

Meanwhile, an anti-tank missile launched by the Lebanese Iran-backed Hezbollah militia hit St. Mary Greek Catholic Melkite Church of Iqrit in northern Israel Dec. 26, wounding an 80-year-old Israeli-Arab Christian there.

Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, prefect of Vatican Dicastery for the Service of Charity, who returned to Rome Dec. 27 after spending Christmas in the Holy Land, told OSV News that “it’s incredible, that in the land where Jesus was born — he who was to bring peace and joy to the world — there is almost constant fighting, violence, hatred and war.”

“The war did not stop for Christmas, the most sacred time of the year,” he lamented.

“My reflection after coming back from Israel and Palestinian Territories is that when you enter any sacred place — The Grotto of the Nativity or the tomb of Our Lord — you need to bend. Your spine hurts, the door is so narrow and low,” he said. 

“But it is for a reason — we need to bend in front of the Lord, be humble and put him in the first place. As long as we don’t put God in the first place, the wars won’t stop. Those narrow doors are our gateway to peace. We need to bend in front of the mystery, otherwise, we won’t understand what is happening and when it will stop. We need to pray. Prayer can move mountains.”