In the shadow of darkness, eight children in Gaza City beamed with joy as they received their first Communion.
As the world marked 100 days since the Hamas militants attacks that unleashed hell in the Holy Land, images of the children from Holy Family Parish—the only Catholic parish in the Gaza Strip—dressed in white albs to receive the sacrament were a stark and welcome contrast in a land that has had very little reason to smile since 7 October.
Across the border in Israel, the families of those hostages still held by Hamas and other groups marked the poignant milestone of 100 days without their loved ones with a vigil in Tel Aviv.
As he has done from the beginning of the current conflict, the Pope used an appearance on Italian television on 14 January to plead for an end to violence. ‘It’s true that making peace is risky, but war is riskier,’ he told the show Che tempo che fa.
The Pope’s solidarity and interventions are reassuring for the Christian community, but as war continues to rage with Israel vowing not to stop until Hamas is eradicated, Church leaders in the region feel increasingly helpless.
It’s true that making peace is risky, but war is riskier.
Speaking to OSV News from Jerusalem, Franciscan Fr Francesco Patton, the custos, or guardian, of the holy places, was downbeat.
‘I feel very sad and frustrated, because at this moment it seems impossible to do something for the civilian population of Gaza—particularly for the children. But it is impossible also to obtain that the Israeli hostages will be freed,’ he said.
‘We are praying every day for peace, for reconciliation, for a diplomatic and political solution of this terrible situation,’ Fr Patton told OSV News from St Saviour’s Monastery in Jerusalem’s Old City, just a few minutes’ walk from the site of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Before the war there were an estimated 1,200 Christians in Gaza; most observers say the number has dropped now to around 800, with those holding dual nationalities able to flee via Egypt. Most of the Christians are Greek Orthodox, but there is also the Catholic community gathered around Holy Family Parish.
We are praying every day for peace, for reconciliation, for a diplomatic and political solution of this terrible situation.
Fr Patton described their witness amid the war as ‘a true miracle.’
‘All of them know each other and are waiting for the end of the war. They cannot leave the Gaza Strip and they need food, water, medicines, fuel—everything,’ he said.
‘They are giving to us a strong testimony of faith, because they in practice live inside the church, praying, helping each other and keeping their hearts free from hatred.
‘And this for me is a true miracle,’ said the Italian friar, who is the 168th custodian of the holy places since St Francis first brought the order there in the 13th century.
As the war passed the grim milestone of 100 days since the Hamas attacks that killed approximately 1,200 Israelis in their homes and at a music festival, the Hamas-controlled health ministry in Gaza said the death toll in the strip stood at 24,100 on 15 January.
Meanwhile, protesters packed what has become known as ‘Hostages Square’ in Tel Aviv to demand the release of the 136 Israelis still held in Gaza with chants of ‘bring them home’ ringing out as businesses nationwide went on strike for 100 minutes.
They are giving to us a strong testimony of faith, because they in practice live inside the church, praying, helping each other and keeping their hearts free from hatred. And this for me is a true miracle.
Many of the holy sites in the Holy Land are in the region known as the West Bank, which includes Bethlehem, Jericho and the site where Jesus was baptised on the River Jordan.
‘For the Christian community of Bethlehem, the situation is tragic, because our Christians usually worked in the tourism industry and [with] pilgrimages, but now all the hotels are closed, the shops are closed, and the pilgrims are not coming anymore,’ Fr Patton lamented.
‘So, the situation in the West Bank is explosive because of restrictions on freedom, poverty, violence and desperation,’ he told OSV News.
When the war ends, as all wars do, Fr Patton insists that ‘the real challenge will not be to rebuild houses, but to rebuild relations.
‘The long-term consequences will be many and very difficult to solve, but I think that this is the last opportunity to solve, politically, the Palestinian–Israeli conflict and give a political international recognition to the state of Palestine,’ he said.
The real challenge will not be to rebuild houses, but to rebuild relations.
Fr Patton is optimistic that such a move is key to a just and lasting peace.
‘If this will happen, it will be possible in a long-term process also to re-establish more or less normal relations between the different ethnic and religious people living in the Holy Land,’ he told OSV News.
Banner image: On 7 January, the feast of Epiphany, children process to front of the Holy Family Church in Gaza City for their first Communion. (Photo: OSV News/courtesy Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.)
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