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Jeffery Abood December 15, 2023
Young people are pictured during confirmation at Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza June 16, 2021. (CNS photo/courtesy Holy Family Parish, Gaza)Young people are pictured during confirmation at Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza June 16, 2021. (CNS photo/courtesy Holy Family Parish, Gaza)

Tens of thousands of Gazans are pressed against the border with Egypt at Rafah. Told that this was a safe place for them to flee, they are still under attack. Almost the entire population has been displaced by the fighting—1.9 million people, according to latest United Nations figures. Gazan health authorities say that more than 18,000 people have been killed since the fighting began; about 70 percent of the casualties are women and children. More than 49,000 people have been wounded.

How can we recover a sense of their individual sacredness that might lead to a stronger demand for an end to this violence and suffering? Perhaps if more people had the opportunity, as I have, to visit Gaza and meet with the Gazan people, they would have a different perspective about the violence raining down on the innocent people living in Gaza.

Media headlines often invoke only negative images whenever Gaza is mentioned. Yet just beneath these headlines are inspiring examples of love and faith in humanity.

Media headlines often invoke only negative images whenever Gaza is mentioned. Yet just beneath these headlines, like a seed waiting to sprout, are inspiring examples of love and faith in humanity. It is vital we recognize and build on these, as love stands as the only force capable of ultimately ending the violence.

Gazans are incredibly warm and loving. My visits to Gaza reminded me of growing up in a Lebanese household and the warm hospitality for which Middle Easterners are famous. Family has always been at the center of their lives.

In fact, these robust and loving family connections are one of the main reasons Gazans have been able to endure 17 years of a brutal military blockade. Another reason is their deep faith. The sacred beliefs of both Muslims and Christians living together in Gaza provide a stable bedrock upon which they all depend.

Some recent instances of people embodying both this love and faith can be seen amid the ongoing bombing campaign in Gaza.

A common assumption is that people only remain in Gaza, and especially in the north, because they have no other choice. Yet, despite the very real dangers to themselves because they are remaining in an active war zone, some make the conscious decision to stay as an act of love.

My visits to Gaza reminded me of growing up in a Lebanese household and the warm hospitality for which Middle Easterners are famous.

Holy Family Parish in Gaza City is situated on a campus that houses the church, a school, three convents and a home for severely disabled children. Every few years, amid periodic bombing, the various religious orders living and working in Gaza receive evacuation orders.

Yet, despite many having the passports that would allow them to leave, the women religious in Gaza, many of whom come from abroad, choose not to. Instead, according to Father Mario Da Silva, a priest once assigned to the parish, they say, “These are our people and we will not abandon them.” Selfless acts like these have earned the small Christian communities in Gaza the respect of all those living in Gaza.

During the bombing in 2014, the Sisters at Holy Family faced a harrowing situation where they had to carry all the disabled children under their care (about 60) into the church’s courtyard. Their hope was that Israeli warplanes would notice them and refrain from dropping their bombs. The tactic proved successful then. However, a few weeks ago, the warplanes not only inflicted damage on Holy Family but also bombed nearby St. Porphyrius Church, killing or maiming nearly 100 people sheltering there.

In an interview with the Catholic news site Crux, Father Francis Xavier Rayappangari, commissary of the Holy Land in India, said he had recently spoken with the sisters at Holy Family.

“We see cruel fire falling from the sky and can have no hope. We only know God will listen to all our prayers.”

“In the convent, there are three sisters and 60 residents, including handicapped and mentally challenged children and bedridden older people, who have no food, water, medicine, electricity or gas. Communication from outside is cut off, and the entire area is surrounded by the [Israeli] army.”

Regarding the current situation of the nuns, he further relayed, “Sometimes some generous and courageous people [in the neighborhood] bring something for them to eat. Whatever they receive from outside, the sisters first serve the residents. If there is anything left, they eat. Most of the time it is just one meal a day.… One day they had just one loaf of bread shared among the three…. The other day it was just an orange, and the three sisters shared it among them.”

In the Kuwaiti Hospital—similar to all Gaza hospitals, including Al-Ahli, the Anglican hospital—there were also Israeli military orders to evacuate. Many hospital directors, doctors and staff, most of whom are Muslim, have publicly stated that they refuse to abandon their patients, who due to their fragile medical status cannot be evacuated. They have chosen rather to put their own lives at a very real risk and stay.

it is crucial for us, as advocates of justice and peace, to actively pursue a genuine pro-life stance, and work for an immediate ceasefire.

In a separate interview, one doctor at the hospital stated, “Where should we evacuate these children? They are attached to ventilators. They are completely dependent on them and it is impossible to move them. If you want to kill us, kill us while we continue working here. We will not leave.”

The hospitals as well as the churches report receiving small amounts of aid from local residents, both Muslim and Christian, who contribute whatever food and basic supplies they can spare for patients or others seeking refuge. These acts are amazing examples of generosity from people who are in just as precarious a position. More than that, they are examples of bravery, as the simple act of crossing the street to deliver this aid can result, as it has with many others, in being killed by Israeli snipers.

In a recent email, a parishioner from Holy Family expressing his unshakable faith said, “I wish this would end very soon, because we are drained [from] seeing the suffering of all these innocent people, who are living with us in an open-air prison. We see cruel fire falling from the sky and can have no hope. We only know God will listen to all our prayers.”

Currently, the sisters of the various communities, as well as a priest from the Institute of the Incarnate Word, are caring for 700 displaced people, including 100 children and another 70 disabled children and adults with various neurologic and birth disorders at Holy Family.

Sister Nabila Saleh, the principal of the Rosary Sisters School in Gaza, told Aid to the Church in Need that it would be logistically impossible to move the elderly, children, sick and those with disabilities. She explained: “We will not go and leave our people. We are here to accompany them; we cannot possibly abandon them.”

So, despite the order for all civilians in Gaza City to evacuate to the south of the Strip, she stressed her decision to remain with the community in the parish “until the end,” knowing full well what that could mean.

In focusing only on the negative images depicted by the media about Gaza, we miss these beautiful and inspiring acts of love. We see people’s decisions to stay for others even when they are faced with their own likely deaths. This kind of dedication is only possible when the seeds of faith sprout out of a resilient love for both God and for others.

In failing to see that, we also fail to see the presence of the only force more powerful than any bomb, the only force that can and will ultimately win over hate and violence: love. In honor of that truly sacrificial love, it is crucial for us, as advocates of justice and peace, to actively pursue a genuine pro-life stance, and work for an immediate ceasefire before these beacons of faith, love and light are snuffed out.

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