When Pope Benedict visited Bethlehem, in the West Bank, last week, he was less than 100 km (60 miles) away from Gaza. But for the 4,000 Christians in this crowded Palestinian territory along the Mediterranean Sea , he might as well have been on the moon. Like nearly all Gazans, they are barred from leaving the Gaza Strip by Israeli restrictions. An Israeli embargo on supplying many essential goods to them has left the impoverished area unable to repair buildings destroyed or damaged by an Israeli offensive in January. Added to all that, the tiny Christian minority has been living since June 2007 under the Islamist rule of Hamas. Faced with conditions like that, attending a papal mass is a luxury few would even dream of. (Photos: Sunday Mass at Holy Family Church, Gaza, 17 May 2009/Suhaib Salem)
Behind the altar at Holy Family Church in Gaza, paintings depict Gospel scenes that all took place within a few hours’ drive. There’s the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Nativity in Bethlehem, Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River and the Last Supper in Jerusalem — all places that Benedict visited. But the only place the Gazan Catholic faithful at Sunday Mass here could hope to visit anytime soon would be the route of the Flight to Egypt. Joseph and Mary would probably have brought Jesus through the Gaza region while fleeing Herod’s plan to kill all newborn boys in Bethlehem. The rest are all unreachable for them.
I made a quick visit to the Christian community in Gaza on Sunday to gauge the mood following the pope’s visit to Israel and the West Bank. My colleague and I had only a few hours until the border closed in mid-afternoon, so there was only enough time for some impressions and short conversations at the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches and with a Hamas government minister.
There were about 70-80 Catholics attending Mass when we arrived at Holy Family Church in the old city centre of Gaza. After Mass, several parishioners talked about the pope and about life in the isolated territory. “For us, his visit didn’t mean anything,” Salama Saba, a 60-year-old unemployed electrical engineer, said when we asked about the pope. “He should come here to Gaza to see the destruction My son was killed. My home was destroyed. There is nothing for us.”
Rami Tarazi, an unemployed 31-year-old, said he would have loved to go see the pope, but it was not possible to get a permit to leave Gaza for Bethlehem. “You had to be over 40 to qualify, and then they only chose some people. We don’t know who did the choosing.” Several people said only about 90 of Gaza’s 4,000 Christians were allowed to leave to go see Pope Benedict.