ROME – In the wake of the deadly war between Israel and Hamas, the Catholic leader of the Holy Land has predicted that “humanly speaking,” it will be difficult for Gaza’s tiny Christian community to resist the temptation to leave.
There are an estimated 1,300 Christians on the Gaza Strip, amid an overall population of just over two million people.
“On a human level, I think the desire to leave will be very strong. Of course, we’ll have to see what the conditions are like … many houses have been destroyed, so in practical terms it won’t be easy,” said Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, in an Oct. 26 interview with the Italian national broadcaster RAI.
Pizzaballa said he’ll encourage Christians to remain, but acknowledged it may be a tough sell.
“I believe we have to try to resist taking the easiest path, which is leaving to seek a calmer, more peaceful life somewhere else,” he said. “We have to try to rebuild, but I know it’s easy to say that, living it is something else.”
“We have to almost start over, building a new life here in whatever new situation will be created,” Pizzaballa said. “For sure, there’s no going back to the way things were before.”
In terms of the long-term fallout from the current conflict, Pizzaballa expressed pessimism about what it will mean for Israeli-Palestinian relations.
“It seems to me that coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians will be practically impossible,” he said. “We have to see where that will lead us concretely, including in the lives of the Christians here. But it certainly won’t be how it was before.”
While expressing a desire to visit Gaza, including its lone Catholic parish, Pizzaballa said that right now the conditions aren’t right.
“If we could, I’d have gone immediately,” he said. “I’d also have taken other priests with me to help and sustain [people].”
“We have to wait for the situation to become clearer,” he said. “Right now, we’re in a phase of transition, and it’s hard to know what’s about to happen. What’s clear is that there’s a lot of pain, a lot of rage and hate going around. This isn’t good.”
Pizzaballa repeated his willingness, and that of the Vatican, to play a role as a mediator, including in negotiating the return of Israel hostages.
“We’ll do anything we can to stop this situation, above all to bring these children home and to provide security for all children,” he said.
“We’ve got to do what we can,” Pizzaball said. “The Holy See has said it’s willing, we’ve said it … whatever we can do, we’re ready to do.”
Pizzaballa also reiterated his support for Palestinian statehood, arguing that resolving the political situation is a precondition for dealing with other challenges.
“The world has to understand that there are two peoples here, including the Palestinian people that’s awaiting a response to its national aspirations,” he said.
“It’s true that it’s an extremely complex situation, and we shouldn’t simplify things, but this is a question that has to be faced,” Pizzaballa said. “Until it is, none of the other questions can be resolved, such as coexistence, religious matters, nothing.”