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GAZA-CHURCH Feb-22-2011 (960 words) With photos. xxxi

Gaza church nurtures hope despite Israeli blockade and Hamas control


Sister Nabila Saleh, a member of the Congregation of the Rosary, participates in Mass at Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza. (CNS/Paul Jeffrey)

By Paul Jeffrey
Catholic News Service

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (CNS) -- The only Catholic church in the Gaza Strip is alive and well, despite an Israeli blockade of the besieged Palestinian enclave and the tight cultural and political control exercised by Gaza's Islamist government.

"Despite all the bad things you hear about Gaza, there is life here," said Father Jorge Hernandez of Holy Family Catholic Church. "People here pray and lead virtuous lives. They are happy, even living in Gaza with all its problems.

"This is their homeland. Their loved ones are buried here. God is here, and it's a fruit of the Holy Spirit that people here embrace and celebrate the life they have," Father Hernandez said.

Of Gaza's 1.6 million people, Father Hernandez said, about 3,000 are Christian and only 206 of them are Catholics. But in a land where just about everyone is Muslim, denominations matter little.

"Most of the participants in our youth program are Orthodox. They come here to the church and I visit them in their homes. We don't worry about these things. There are many people who pray in the Orthodox church early in the morning and then come to the Catholic church for Mass. And there are quite a few of them who come just for the coffee hour. In Arab culture, that's important," Father Hernandez told Catholic News Service.

A missionary of the Argentina-based religious congregation called the Institute of the Incarnate Word, Father Hernandez said the daily interactions between Christians and Gaza's Muslim majority are almost always respectful and peaceful. Yet the relationship has been tested since the fundamentalist movement Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006 and took complete control of Gaza in 2007. Pressure increased on Christian women to cover their heads in public. A Catholic school and convent were ransacked in 2007. Later that year, a Christian bookseller was killed and in 2008 a YMCA library was bombed.

Many observers blame the attacks on fundamentalist Salafi Muslims, who consider Christians to be modern-day Crusaders.

"There is no official policy against Christians," Father Hernandez said. "We are part of the same homeland and live in the same circumstances, victims of the same blockade."

Father Hernandez has served in Gaza for just two years, but he said the community's elders have helped him understand how practitioners of Gaza's two faiths share a long and relatively harmonious history.

"The old people tell me how they would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem crowded into the same car with Muslims," the priest said. "This was when the border was still open. When they got there, the Christians would go pray in church, the Muslims in the mosque, and afterward they met up and went to eat in a restaurant together. At night the families would return together to Gaza in an atmosphere of joy.

"There was a mutual solidarity. Muslims would come to play games at the church and stay for Mass. No one made distinctions. That was Palestinian reality. Yet today it's different, and our apostolate is to try and conserve those old values."

When a Muslim dies in his neighborhood, Father Hernandez said he visits the family.

"In the Islamic tradition, they bury the person immediately, but then have three days of mourning. You sit around and drink coffee and eat. It's an Arab custom that we respect, and I'll often go each of the three days," he said.

This pastoral accompaniment makes for good diplomacy, albeit of the quiet type.

"I know all the government leaders personally and visit them often, from the prime minister to the chief of police. It has to be that way. Whether I like it or not, I'm the representative -- although not officially -- of the church here. And when problems arise, who is going to defend us? No one. So I need to have good contacts, to be able to call them, to greet them at parties, to visit them," he said.

Father Hernandez's predecessor, Father Manuel Musallam, was an outspoken critic of Israel's treatment of the Palestinian people. Yet, Father Musallam was Palestinian, and Father Hernandez said that as a foreigner, he tries to maintain a more politically neutral stance. But he admits some events have pushed him to speak out.

"When the aid flotilla from Turkey was blocked from coming here, I went to the beach to add my voice to the protest," he said. "I didn't speak specifically against Israel, but I did say that such violence only generates more violence. We're working for peace in Gaza and they made that much tougher to achieve. I had to say that. Israel will understand it however they want, as will Hamas."

The parish runs two schools with about 1,000 students, 90 percent of whom are Muslims. Father Hernandez said he does not permit "even one word that lacks respect toward another's religion, whether from the Christians or from the Muslims. Anyone who violates such respect suffers immediate judgment without mercy."

The parish also works with youth centers on responding to Gaza's unique challenges, Father Hernandez said.

"We're going to see the consequences of the occupation and blockade of Gaza long into the future. Children grow up here without the idea of their father going off to work and earning a living. The father remains in the home, because he doesn't have a job," he said.

Helping young people envision a different future is part of the church's mission.

"The majority of youth are working hard in the university, yet they face a future of not being able to find work. It's difficult not to be able to envision a future. These are very difficult themes. So the church is also trying to create employment opportunities, so kids can grow up with different values."

END


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