Pope Francis Encourages Gaza Catholics: 'Be Christ's witness in midst of conflict'

Palestinians in Gaza walk next to the ruins of houses destroyed during the Israeli offensive. (CNS photo/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa, Reuters)

The priest leading the Gaza Strip's only Catholic parish met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, thanking him for his support of those suffering in the war-torn territory.

Argentine Father Jorge Hernandez of the Institute of the Incarnate Word had a 45-minute private meeting with the pope Aug. 29 -- just days after the start of a truce between Israel and Hamas, which controls the coastal territory.


The 36-year-old priest told Vatican Radio that the pope continued to offer his prayers and encouragement.

He said the pope told him, "'The Gospel demands the sacrifices that Jesus Christ asks of every one of us, everywhere. It's up to you to give witness to Jesus Christ there, in the land that saw him suffer, that saw him die, that also saw him, however, come back from the dead. So, be strong, have courage, keep going!'"

Father Hernandez and three Missionaries of Charity were the only religious left at Holy Family Church during a 50-day campaign between Israeli forces and Hamas militants.

While those who could were encouraged to evacuate Gaza, the priest and three religious women stayed behind in the midst of the heaviest rocket fire to care for 29 severely disabled children and nine elderly women. They later opened up the parish school to shelter some 1,200 Palestinians who fled their homes during the airstrikes.

After meeting the pope, Father Hernandez told Vatican Radio how important Pope Francis' support was during the ordeal.

"He even sent us an email that we immediately translated into Arabic, and that's how it was given to the whole Christian community, which was enormously grateful," the priest said.

"A thought like that at such a time is a huge consolation, a relief -- and now the fact that he called us for a personal meeting with him, to let us understand, to feel his closeness, his words, his encouragement to be the salt of the earth in Gaza."

He said the pope is aware of "the life lived in pain" by the small Catholic minority in Gaza. There are just 136 Catholics out of 2 million, mostly Muslim, inhabitants, he said, with another 1,300 people who are part of the Christian Orthodox traditions.

He said the pope's recent trip to the Holy Land did and will continue to bear fruit; the fact that he "won over people's hearts, put in a good word for both states was an enormous grace for us."

Father Hernandez thanked everyone for their prayers and for all the notes, calls and concrete assistance, especially from Caritas Internationalis, which helped them provided urgent materials for those in need.

He said he hoped the cease-fire would hold and last "forever."

"All you have to do is see the suffering on both sides," he said, because all sides "will have to pay the consequences" of conflict in different ways.

"Nobody wins with war," he said. "Nobody comes out ahead. Everybody loses."

"Let's hope that God grants us the strength needed to start all over again."

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