ROME – For the tiny Catholic community on the besieged Gaza strip, the last 48 hours have brought both good news and bad, with a couple of Catholic aid workers able to reach safety in Egypt after a border crossing was opened Wednesday, but a gathering at the lone Catholic church in Gaza disrupted by what was described as a nearby Israeli missile strike.
There are only about 1,300 Christians in Gaza amid a total population of two million, and the lone Catholic parish, Holy Family Church in the northern part of the strip, normally serves a community estimated at around 150 Catholics.
Since the outbreak of the war that began with Oct. 7 sneak attacks by Hamas on Israel, however, hundreds of Gazans have sought shelter at Holy Family, hoping that it might be spared the destruction facing other targets in the densely populated area.
According to an Oct. 31 report by Vatican News, the Vatican’s state-run media platform, the church has been offering Mass twice a day as well as the praying of the rosary, invoking peace and protection.
On Thursday, the online media platform Middle East Monitor, which is considered to have a broadly pro-Palestinian editorial stance, posted a brief video to its Instagram account showing people inside the church when a loud explosion is heard outside, causing an immediate reaction among those gathered.
According to the post, the noise represented an Israel missile striking in the vicinity.
“An Israeli missile disrupted a service at Gaza’s Holy Family Catholic Church, causing fear and chaos amongst worshippers,” the post said.
In the meantime, Catholic Relief Services, the overseas development arm of the U.S. bishops, announced Nov. 1 that two of its employees were able to enter Egypt after one of just two border crossings on the narrow peninsula was opened.
“The Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza opened on November 1 to allow injured Palestinians and some other nationalities to leave Gaza,” CRS’s statement said. “Two Catholic Relief Services employees were among those able to cross into Egypt. We offer our deep thanks to many within the American government who worked behind the scenes to allow movement of humanitarian workers and those needing medical attention.”
The statement indicated that CRS has been providing humanitarian aid in Gaza since the conflict erupted, and will “continue to do so.”
“We have dozens of Gazan staff members who remain and are courageously assisting their fellow Gazans under unimaginable circumstances. As soon as circumstances allow, we will reposition international staff in Gaza,” said the statement.
“While we are happy two of our colleagues are now safely in Egypt, we are deeply concerned about the more than 2 million people in Gaza who remain in harm’s way,” the CRS statement said.
“We continue to demand an immediate cessation of violence, greatly expanded access to humanitarian assistance and humanitarian corridors, and protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure,” it said.
In a recent interview, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, told the Italian national broadcaster RAI that it will be difficult to convince Christians in Gaza to remain once it becomes possible to exit.
“I believe we have to try to resist taking the easiest path, which is leaving to seek a calmer, more peaceful life somewhere else,” Pizzaballa said. “We have to try to rebuild, but I know it’s easy to say that, living it is something else.”
Also on Thursday, the World Council of Churches came out in support of an Oct. 30 statement from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem condemning Israeli targeting of civilian infrastrcture in Gaza.
“Attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure are in clear violation of international law,” said WCC general secretary Rev. Prof. Dr Jerry Pillay .
“We stand with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and many around the world who are calling to protect places of refuge, and to stop injuring and killing innocent people,” Pillay said.