For Mother María del Pilar Llerena Vargas, ‘it was an image that will be very difficult to erase.’ The Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word from Peru, who is serving in the Catholic parish in Gaza, recalled the pain of watching the funeral of Christians killed in a blast at a Greek Orthodox church on 19 October.
Children laid to rest their parents, and parents buried their little children, after an Israel bombing of a Hamas target next to the Greek Orthodox church caused the collapse of a two-storey building in the church complex.
‘Some of those children attended the different activities of our parish. They were well-known families and very close to us,’ Mother María said in a recorded testimony sent to OSV News.
One father was uncovered from the rubble with no sign of life, parish priest Fr Gabriel Romanelli said in a WhatsApp update on 22 October, but protected by his body, his little child was found still alive.
Heartbreaking images were circulated on social media of young married couples and children who died under the rubble. Caritas said in a statement on 20 October that they were ‘devastated’ to learn of the death of a 26-year-old Caritas Jerusalem lab technician, Viola, who was killed alongside her toddler and husband, with her sister and her sister’s two children also among the casualties in an airstrike attack on the St Porphyrios (Greek) Orthodox Church in Gaza.
The church provided refuge for around 500 people, including five dedicated members of Caritas staff, along with their families, Caritas wrote. About 80 had been sleeping in the church hall when it collapsed in the explosion.
Kirsty Robertson, CEO of Caritas Australia, said, ‘Today, with heavy hearts, we pray for those who lost their lives in this attack, all those who have lost their lives in this conflict, and all continuing to live through these unimaginable days in Gaza. We pray for our Caritas Jerusalem brothers and sisters, that they may find the strength to deal with the harrowing challenges they face.
‘I draw from the words of Pope Francis: “Let the weapons be silenced; let the cry for peace be heard from the poor, from the people, from the children.” We stand in solidarity with our colleagues and pray for the safety and protection of all civilians. We pray for peace.’
Mother María said the Catholic Holy Family Parish offered medical help to some of the people who received minor injuries in the blast and later received many of the Christians who had sought shelter at the St Porphyrios Church. Some 700 people were now sheltering at the Holy Family Parish church complex, she said, including families, elderly and the 50 disabled children under the care of the Missionaries of Charity sisters.
‘We serve everyone,‘ she said. ‘We very charitably seek to ensure that everyone receives what they need in the best possible way.‘
People at the parish are currently without electricity and drinking water, and are using the water from their well, but they don’t know how long it will last, she said. They have bought mineral water at triple the original price so people will have drinking water, she added.
The parish celebrates Mass twice a day, Mother María said, and people are ‘constantly praying the Rosary asking the Virgin and God for that peace we long for.‘ She called for believers everywhere to join in their prayers ‘So that God in his mercy grants it to us, since only He can do this great miracle.‘
On 20 October, in a letter of appeal for donations to provide help to the Gaza parish, Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem CEO Sami El-Yousef said providing care for the many people who have reached the church seeking shelter since the beginning of the war two weeks ago has been ‘a great responsibility‘.
‘The human stories are incredibly tragic, and I am truly shaken as I personally know many of them from my frequent visits,‘ he said, noting that some of the dead were participants in the patriachate’s job-creation program. ‘We are simply overwhelmed, and the means available to us are being depleted quickly.’
The Rafah crossing with Egypt briefly opened on 21 October to allow the first convoy of aid trucks to enter the besieged Gaza Strip. Human rights groups welcomed the short reopening but stressed that more aid is desperately needed in Gaza, where conditions continue to deteriorate. On 22 and 23 October, two more convoys of aid were allowed into Gaza.
Among the voices joining the call for peace is Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, who wrote in a letter ‘to the entire diocese’ on 24 October that the Holy Land is ‘going through one of the most difficult and painful periods in our recent times and history.’ ‘It is time to stop this war, this senseless violence,’ he said.
‘For over two weeks now, we have been inundated with images of horrors, which have reawakened ancient traumas, opened new wounds, and made pain, frustration and anger explode within all of us.’
The patriarch condemned the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October, saying his ‘conscience and moral duty require me to state clearly that what happened … is in no way permissible and we cannot but condemn it.’ The cardinal said that ‘there is no reason for such an atrocity.’
He also said that ‘the same conscience’ led him to ‘state with equal clarity’ that a new cycle of violence causing thousands of deaths in Gaza, ‘including many women and children’, are ‘tragedies that cannot be understood and which we have a duty to denounce and condemn unreservedly.’
In his letter, Cardinal Pizzaballa said, ‘It was on the cross that Jesus won: not with weapons, not with political power, not by great means, nor by imposing himself. The peace He speaks of has nothing to do with victory over others. He won the world by loving it.’ The patriarch urged the world ‘to accompany us, to comfort and encourage us. We need it like the air we breathe.’
At his general audience in St Peter's Square on 18 October, Pope Francis named Friday 27 October as a day of penance and fasting for peace, announcing that an evening hour of prayer for peace will take place in Rome on 27 October. He encouraged Catholic churches around the world to hold similar services and invited ‘sisters and brothers of the various Christian denominations, those belonging to other religions and all those who have at heart the cause of peace in the world to join in as they see fit.’
In his announcement, the pope referred to the ‘desperate’ situation in Gaza and Israel. ‘Please, let everything possible be done to avoid a humanitarian disaster. The possible widening of the conflict is disturbing, while so many war fronts are already open in the world. May weapons be silenced, and let us heed the cry for peace of the poor, the people, the children ...
Brothers and sisters, war does not solve any problem: it sows only death and destruction, foments hate, proliferates revenge. War cancels out the future ... I urge believers to take just one side in this conflict: that of peace. But not in words—in prayer, with total dedication.
Banner image: Women react outside St Porphyrios Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza on 20 October, after an explosion went off the night before. Several hundred people had been sheltering at the church complex, many of them sleeping at the time of the explosion. (Photo by Mohammed Al-Masri for Reuters/OSV News.)
Melbourne Catholic17 October 2023
Melbourne Catholic09 October 2023