ROME – On Sunday, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem condemned an Israeli strike against a Catholic school in Gaza, which left families sheltering there traumatized as they continue to adjust to a new life amid a war with an unclear end in sight.

In a July 7 statement, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said it was monitoring “with grave concern, the news of the raids, apparently launched by the Israeli army against the Sacred Family School in Gaza this morning.”

“Footage and media reports from the place include scenes of civilian casualties and of destruction in the compound,” they said.

The Hamas-run Palestinian Civil Defense Directorate reported the death of four “martyrs” and several injuries when an Israeli aircraft targeted the Holy Family school in Gaza, which is attached to the Holy Family parish, where some 600 people have been sheltering since the war began last fall.

Apparently among the casualties of Sunday’s raid – which took place after Israeli forces Saturday attacked a UN-run school Saturday, killing at least 16 people, including UNRWA workers, and injuring 75 sheltered there, according to Gaza authorities – was Ihab al-Ghusain, Hamas’s Deputy Minister of Labor.

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Since the beginning of the war on October 7, thousands of civilians in the Gaza Strip have sought shelter in hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure. The Israeli military has also accused Hamas and other militants of infiltrating these facilities and using them as hideouts, an allegation Hamas has denied.

In their statement, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, led by Italian Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, said that since the beginning of the war, the Holy Family school has “been a place of refuge for hundreds of civilians. No religious personnel reside in the school.”

“The Latin Patriarchate condemns in the strongest terms the targeting of civilians or any belligerent actions that fall short of ensuring that civilians remain outside the combat scene,” they said.

They urged continued prayer for “the Lord’s mercy and hope that the parties will reach an agreement that would put an immediate end to the horrifying bloodbath and humanitarian catastrophe in the region.”

Currently in its ninth month, the Gaza war began after an Oct. 7, 2023, surprise attack by Hamas militants in Israel that left some 1,200 people dead, mostly civilians. Militants also seized 251 hostages, 116 of whom remain in Gaza, including 42 whom the military believe are dead.

Israel’s retaliatory military offensive has killed an estimated 38,153 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run Palestinian health ministry.

This is not the first time that Gaza’s Catholic parish has been directly impacted by the war.

In December 2023, an Israeli sniper shot and killed two Christian women, a mother and daughter, who were sheltering in the parish and school compound. At the same time, a convent attached to the parish that assists the mentally disabled was also hit, and its generator destroyed, rendering special equipment needed to assist the disabled unusable.

Two months prior, an air strike on a building near St. Porphyrios Greek Orthodox Church left some 18 people dead, including an aid worker with the Caritas charitable network.

Pope Francis and international organizations such as the United Nations have repeatedly called for civilians to be protected in the war.

At an open debate at a Security Council meeting in New York in May, the Permanent Mission of the Holy See to the UN lamented that civilian infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and places of worship, have become “devastating targets, disproportionately affecting the lives of the innocent and defenseless.”

Only recently has the pastor of Holy Family church in Gaza, Father Gabriel Romanalli, been able to return, after having been unable to since October of last year due to the outbreak of the war.

Father Carlos Ferrero, provincial superior of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, who chose to accompany Romanalli back into Gaza, gave an interview to the Latin Patriarchate that was published on its website Monday in which he spoke of the current status of the situation on the ground, and how families are coping.

Of Romanalli’s return, he said, “I cannot put into words” how much it has “been impactful, a great source of relief not only for the faithful,” but also for the associate pastor, who has been running things alone since the outbreak of the war.

Ferrero said he has visited Holy Family parish in Gaza several times since becoming provincial superior in 2019 but was surprised at how his own decision to stay has moved the people.

“My presence here at this hour has had its own impact. I realized this when people began to ask me if I was going away when the Patriarch had to go back,” he said, saying, “When I told them that I had come to stay for as much as God allowed me to be here, they became very happy, and I realized that it gave them hope that something good had taken place.”

Just being with the people and praying with them daily is enough for them to feel supported, he said, saying the people of Gaza “are very tired, but they must bear the situation.”

Most people, he said, have “lost interest in the development of the process for obvious reasons. The only thing they experience is suffering. They hear a good word and next it is all the opposite. They are tired of that!”

“Sometimes just to hear what they have to say, sharing with them words of comfort, helping with things as best as we can,” is the most that can be done, he said.

Ferrero said that with no school in session, Romanalli has set up support classes and is teaching core subjects to the children at the parish. He said that he himself was asked to help teach English, and is instructing children between the third and fourth grade.

“The children are much affected by these nine months of war and no school. The nerves are upside down,” he said, but said that “Little by little they are coming to be more interested, and they are learning the basics.”

In addition to teaching, Ferraro said he makes frequent visits to the sick to bring them the Eucharist or to administer the Anointing of the Sick, and he also tries to go daily to a home run by the Missionaries of Charity assisting special-needs children.

“There are some elderly people as well. They are very happy to receive a simple greeting, which makes a great difference for them,” he said, saying, “When there is political upheaval nearby, I try to be seen and close to everyone as much as possible.”

A parish committee established at the beginning of the war, he said, is helping the parish compound to stay organized with the resources they have, and with the cooperation of the people sheltering there.

Young people are also helping to organize games and parish activities, he said, saying, “Every day there is something to do. The fact that we can move around, and see one another, is a blessing as they know the sisters and fathers are there for them and with them.”

The way the parish has been able to organize teachers, classes, and other activities, Ferrero said, is “a testimony of their willingness, love, and strong will. As it is not easy and we do not have all the means, yet we make it happen.”

He shared the experiences of some parishioners, saying one woman had told him that, “Outside there is destruction and death, here, inside there is life! Despite all the obstacles and differences people may find here, it is better to be ‘in the house of Jesus,’ the parish.”

A man belonging to the parish, Ferrero said, told him and Pizzaballa when Pizzaballa made a 4-day visit in May that “we Christians don’t have this violence in our blood. That is why we don’t understand this fighting! Yes, we have our own misunderstandings and struggles for different things, we might quarrel, but never like this.”

Ferrero told Christians around the world that the people at Holy Family parish in Gaza “count on your prayers!”

“We pray for you and thank you. We pray for the end of the war and for a better future in peace! May God, through the Virgin Mary, grant us this!” he said.

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