Catholics in Israel and Gaza: a Christian community poised to disappear
The October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, which killed 1,440 people, were shocking in their cruelty, eliciting an extreme response from Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu is determined to eliminate Hamas once and for all.
After neutralising the terrorists in Israel, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) has cut off access to Gaza, not allowing anything in or out. The targeting of civilians, as well as images and videos of the brutalisation of victims, including women, children, and the elderly, has made it difficult for many people around the world to feel sympathy for the Palestinian cause.
Human rights groups have asked Israel to allow humanitarian aid to pass through. However, Hamas taxes everything that goes in, including aid. Israel is blocking aid to Gaza because it fears that it will end up in the hands of Hamas. Jerusalem has stated that aid would be allowed into Gaza if the more than 190 Israeli hostages were released.
Human rights organisations argue that not all Palestinians are affiliated with Hamas. On the other hand, because Hamas members do not wear uniforms and often blend into the larger civilian population, it is challenging for the IDF to distinguish between terrorists and non-terrorists, as well as those who support terrorism and those who do not.
However, it's important to note that Palestine's small Christian community is not associated with Hamas. Mr Anton Asfar, Secretary General of Caritas Jerusalem, a Catholic aid organisation, explained during a phone interview that the blockade affects not only Muslims in Gaza, but also Catholics and other Christians.
Mr Asfar recounted the relatively small size of the Christian population in the Middle East, saying, "Christians in the Holy Land are few in number, about 200,000." He estimated that in Jerusalem, where he is based, there are fewer than 10,000 Christians from various denominations, including Latins, Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Syriacs, and Armenians. "And the number has been decreasing," he said with sadness. In 1922, approximately 25 percent of Jerusalem's population was Christian, but today, Christians account for only about 2 percent of the population.
In Israel, the Catholic Church operates schools, hospitals, and other services that are open to people of all faiths. Caritas Jerusalem is an organisation "Inspired by Gospel values and Catholic Social Teaching, [which] responds to disasters, promotes integral human development, and advocates for the causes of poverty and conflict."
Mr Asfar was concerned because he wanted to provide aid to staff members and to Catholics in Gaza. He stressed, however, that the organisation assists all people regardless of race, religion, or nationality.
In Gaza, there are only about 1,000 Christians from the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic faiths. The predominant language among Catholics in both Israel and Gaza is Arabic. Mr Asfar stated, "The Christians are considered Palestinians by the Israelis." However, in Israel, they can also speak Hebrew. In Palestine, they speak Arabic. He said that in Palestine, the Christians share the same culture and schools as the Palestinians. In fact, the majority of the students at the Catholic schools in Gaza are Muslim.
"The Christians in Gaza are suffering now just as much as the Muslims," he lamented.
"Christians are displaced as much as Muslims. We have many staff working in Gaza. Many of them have had their houses destroyed. Both Catholics and Muslims have sought refuge in the convents and schools of the Catholic Church."
Fr Gabriel Romanelli, the pastor of Holy Family parish in Gaza under the jurisdiction of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, reported that "200 parishioners were taking shelter in the church, monastery, St Thomas Aquinas Centre, and Holy Family School, along with several congregations of women religious: the Sisters of the Incarnate Word, the Rosary Sisters, and the Sisters of Charity." An additional 120 families have also sought refuge in the Greek Orthodox complex.
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The churches are providing people with food, medicine, basic hygiene kits, and mattresses, regardless of their religion; however, supplies are running low. According to Mr Asfar, the church is offering food and medicine, but supplies are running out.
"The needs are enormous," said Mr Asfar, but "no medical supplies or food are allowed to pass into Gaza right now." The situation became more dire when water and electricity were cut.
Pope Francis is monitoring the situation and staying in close contact with Gaza's small Christian community. He has called Father Gabriel Romanelli several times to express his concern and offer his prayers.
For now, the only thing the Christians of Israel and Palestine can do is wait and pray. One way or another, this incident may lead to a significant decrease in the Christian population, as many who survive may contemplate seeking refuge in Western countries. Mr Asfar posited,
“This attack on Gaza, we are afraid that many families are thinking more and more about relocating and leaving the Holy Land. I am here as the third generation; we have seen a lot of wars, conflicts and bloodshed, and it is not coming to an end. We need trustworthy leaders who can push both parties to end the conflict.”
Leaving home behind
The decline in the Christian population is partly due to lower birth rates. Christian families typically have 1.9 children, whereas Muslims have 3.37. The other reason is emigration.
According to Mr Asfar, within the Christian community, ongoing discussions revolve around the dilemma of “whether to continue living in their Holy Land, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, or to consider emigration to Europe, the United States, or Canada.” The notion of leaving is seriously considered by numerous families.
In Gaza, the situation is much more extreme. The Christian community is in danger of dying out, as so many have already left. And those who remain want to find sanctuary in more tranquil nations. This pattern extends beyond Gaza, as Christians in Jerusalem also make the decision to depart their homeland.
Mr Asfar said, “For instance, one of my colleagues is leaving to join his children in Canada.”
The choice to live abroad is appealing to families seeking a more peaceful life. “There is a real brain drain,” said Mr Asfar, as educated Christians opt to emigrate in pursuit of better opportunities. Furthermore, the exemption of Christians from military service in Israel means that young people do not have to wait until a certain age to leave their homeland.
While others may seek safer climes, Mr Asfar is determined to remain.
“I was educated in Europe, but I chose to stay because it is an honour to witness Jesus Christ to witness Christianity where it happened, where it started. Unfortunately, to have this honour badge, you will suffer. The Christians have a big cross to witness Jesus in the Holy Land because of the conflict here. I want to witness Jesus and raise my family here and give to them the witness of Jesus Christ.”
Asked if he had any message he wanted to get out to the world, Mr Asfar said, “We are asking for international to help us get permission to send supplies to Gaza.”
Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA MBA, is a China economic analyst teaching economics at the American University in Mongolia. He has spent 20 years in Asia and is the author of six books about China. His writing has appeared in The Diplomat, South China Morning Post, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Penthouse, Shanghai Institute of American Studies, Epoch Times, War on the Rocks, Just the News, and Black Belt Magazine.
Image: Holy Family Church in Gaza City / Wikipedia
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