AMMAN, Jordan - A top Catholic charity official described Gaza as a "complete catastrophe" after nearly four weeks of fighting between Israel and the Palestinian militant Hamas.

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JERUSALEM - Since the death of his wife in an Israeli missile attack on their house in the Gaza Strip in late July, George Ayyad, 75, has been keeping vigil over his son Jeries, 31.

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JERUSALEM - When the staff at the lone Catholic parish in the Gaza Strip received text warnings to evacuate the premises, they had nowhere to go.

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JERUSALEM - The head of Caritas in Jerusalem said he would launch an international appeal to help with the Gaza Strip and would not wait until the end of Israeli-Hamas hostilities, as he had done in the past.

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VATICAN CITY - Civilians in Gaza used a brief ceasefire to spill onto the streets and replenish scarce supplies, some Church representatives said.

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While the violence escalates in Israel and Gaza, a movement is taking hold that unites Jews, Muslims and others in a campaign for peace.

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JERUSALEM - Members of the tiny Christian community in the Gaza Strip have been keeping tabs on each other and lending a helping hand to keep each other safe during Israeli airstrikes throughout the region, but nowhere in the territory is really safe, said a priest at the territory's only Catholic parish.

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November 28, 2012

Keys to peace

As this editorial is being written, the guns are silent in Israel and Gaza. But for how long? Hours, days, weeks? Maybe months, at best?

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VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI condemned escalating hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians, saying hatred and violence are never an appropriate solution to problems.

He also called for greater efforts to promote a truce and peace negotiations.

"I am following with great concern the escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip," the Pope said at the end of his general audience Nov. 21.

"Hatred and violence are not the solution to problems," he said to applause from those gathered in the Paul VI hall.

"I encourage the initiatives and efforts of those who are seeking to establish a ceasefire and to promote negotiations."

He also called on leaders on both sides of the conflict to make "courageous decisions in favour of peace and put an end to a conflict that has negative repercussions throughout the entire Middle East region, which is already troubled by too many conflicts and is in need of peace and reconciliation."

The Pope expressed his closeness to victims and all those suffering because of the violence.

His appeal came as both sides in the conflict launched fresh attacks. Just hours before the Pope spoke, a bomb exploded on a bus in Tel Aviv, wounding at least 10 people. That attack followed a week-long Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip aimed at stopping rocket strikes by Palestinian militants.

More than 130 Palestinians and at least five Israelis have been killed since Israel launched its offensive.

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JERUSALEM - As diplomatic efforts were underway to reach a ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel Nov. 20, Catholics on both sides of the Gaza border prayed for peace.

"When we pray for peace, we pray for peace for everyone," said Fr. Yoel Salvaterra, who serves the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in Beersheba, after a morning in which more than 20 rockets landed in the city. "Our prayers have no borders. We know we are suffering here and they are suffering there. It is just suffering."

Egypt was reported to have been brokering a ceasefire agreement between Hamas and the Israeli government late Nov. 20, according to news reports.

The parish celebrated Mass Nov. 18 in the church bomb shelter, Salvaterra said, and only 15 people came to pray, about half the normal number. The community has about 150 members.

"People live in fear," he said. "Everybody is staying home. Sometimes they call me for assurance, sometimes I call them. The situation has not been easy as even before the Israeli operation we suffered from rockets once or twice a month. The uncertainty was difficult."

Though several homes in Beersheba took direct hits from the rockets, no one from the community has been injured, he said.

Going to Sunday Mass is a way of supporting one another and finding strength through prayer, said Rafoul Assy, 50, who hails from the northern all-Melkite village of Fassuta and has lived in Beersheba for more than 20 years. Although Assy was unable to attend Mass because of his work, he said his wife and four children found comfort in the familiar routine of the prayers.

"The Mass itself took only three-quarters of an hour but they stayed there for over an hour talking to the other people," said Assy. "It is difficult for the children. They spend their days in the bomb shelter. Every time there is a siren the little one grabs the iPad and runs to the shelter. They are afraid."

In Gaza, George Antone, 31, project manager for the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, told Catholic News Service Nov. 20 that people are staying home because it is too risky to leave. No one knows where Israel's bombs may land next, he said.

"The situation here is terrible. Last night it was as if we were living in hell. Every 15 minutes you could hear an explosion."

One member of Holy Family parish in Gaza died of a heart attack during a bombing and had just been buried at the church cemetery, he said. Otherwise, people leave their homes only to get essentials. Supplies such as fuel and bread are running low because flour can't be delivered to the bakeries, he said.

"I don't like the killing on either side. I respect life," Antone said. "This is not the way in which we can find a solution. Peace never comes with blood. That is what we say to the people in church. This will lead to nothing only a very bad scenario on both sides and the people will pay the price."

He added that he sees the conflict between Hamas and the Israeli government as not only political but also one stemming from religious fanaticism from both Muslims and Jews.

"We Christians are not political, we call for peace and to save lives," Antone said. "This conflict will lead to nothing. We pray a real truce will be reached and then afterward they have to start negotiating for peace. That is the only way to solve the problem. They have to sit and speak and find a way where there will be no war for our children and the coming generations."

In a Nov. 19 report Sami El-Yousef, regional director for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association's office in Jerusalem, noted widespread destruction in Gaza and said almost all of the Christian institutions have sustained some damage from the shelling in the form of broken glass and doors.

He said children and the elderly are paying the heaviest price and called for prayers that the hostilities would end as soon as possible.

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