Palestinian children participate in an activity in the central Gaza Strip May 15 aimed to support the mental health of children affected by the recent Israel-Gaza fighting, near the site of an Israeli strike. A ceasefire was agreed to between Palestinian factions and Israel on May 13. OSV News photo/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa, Reuters

Gaza priest helps calm traumatized community

By  Judith Sudilovsky, OSV News
  • May 17, 2023

JERUSALEM -- Even before the ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad had been called on the evening of May 13 after five days of fighting, Fr. Gabriel Romanelli of Gaza Holy Family Parish was already tentatively going over travel details for a trip to Egypt with some of the Catholic Scouts youth leaders, which had been long in the making.

There had been concern that they would need to cancel the much anticipated trip, he said.

After the death in prison May 2 of prominent hunger-striking Palestinian prisoner Khader Adnan, a leader in the Islamic Jihad militant group, the group launched a barrage of missiles into southern Israel. On May 9, Israel retaliated with an early morning airstrike into Gaza, killing three senior Islamic Jihad militants and 10 civilians, including their wives and some children and neighbours.

Continued attempts by Egypt to broker an agreement finally succeeded and the ceasefire was called for 10 p.m. May 13.

"We know from experience the one thing (we want to do) is to (reduce) the trauma," said Romanelli in a phone conversation with OSV News a few hours before the ceasefire. "The people are tired. They want peace."

In addition to providing spiritual support to the community during five days of hostilities, Romanelli and the nine nuns currently in Gaza worked to find ways to offer psychological and emotional support.

"In the parish, we are always busy providing them with activities and events so life can be as normal as possible," said Romanelli, originally from Argentina. "We have games and events and bingo and horseback riding. We take them to the beach."

The 10-day trip to Egypt with the youth had been planned after failing for four years to get permits from Israel for the young people to travel to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, said Romanelli. Most of the Gaza population is made up of youth, most of them have never been involved in violent acts and the large majority have never been outside of Gaza, he said.

"The young people ask me what fault it is that they were born here. That is trauma."

The only year there has not been a war in Gaza since 2017 was 2022 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Romanelli noted.

During current hostilities, Romanelli livestreamed nightly from his Facebook page a rosary of peace, including May 13, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, and a blessing of the sacraments.

"Fatima is the virgin of peace," said Romanelli. "Every night, we have been … asking for peace in the whole area. We pray for everyone: Christians, Muslims, Jews, Druze and those who do not believe."

While the faith of young people of the parish has remained steadfast, placing their trust in God, they also were angry on the one hand at the continuing aggressions, and anguished over the many wars they have lived through, frustrated by the inability to plan anything, causing young Catholics to consider leaving Gaza, the priest stressed.

Amid a general population of 2.3 million people in the densely populated Gaza Strip, the tiny Christian community in Gaza numbers 1,017 people. The majority belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, with 136 people — constituting 30 families — members of the Catholic parish. The community continues to shrink as many young Christians have emigrated from Gaza.

Though the parish church had been kept open throughout the recent attacks, parishioners stayed home, going out only for essentials, he said. Romanelli and parish nuns kept in daily touch with parish members, as well as members of the Greek Orthodox community, through phone calls and social media groups. They ventured out to bring food and give Communion to the elderly and the sick.

On May 12, they made a pastoral visit to a parishioner who was in the hospital, he said.

"We go out in our van with a big flag of the Vatican on the roof, praying that they (Israeli pilots) will be able to recognize the yellow and white colours belonging to the Vatican," he said.

During a five-day hostility, at least 33 Palestinians were killed by Israeli airstrikes including at least 13 civilians, according to an AP report. Two people were killed in Israel by Islamic Jihad missiles — one an elderly Israeli woman and, on May 13, a Palestinian labourer from Gaza, a father of six.

Salam, a young leader in the Catholic Scouts, said in a WhatsApp message that she was happy now to be able to travel outside her country for the first time and see Egypt.

"I hope the trip will be successful and that we can return with rested and uplifted spirits," she said.

"You can’t put out a fire by putting more gas on it," said Romanelli, reflecting on the continuing cycle of violence. "We continue to pray because we believe God can change hearts. We pray for peace, justice and reconciliation. We explain that we pray for justice and that … God responds with more light so that we can do what we need to do, to do the correct thing."

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