By Stuart Littlewood – London
I hear that Fr Manuel Musallam, the Catholic priest in Gaza, has finally retired at 71. His is a hard act to follow.
Many of us feared that ill health had forced him to hang up his cassock last year, but he returned to the fray to be with his community during their darkest hour when Israel, with a nod from America and the EU, unleashed its blitzkrieg intended to finally crush the isolated and half-starved Gazans.
This is simply the continuation of a hateful religious war by Zionist fanatics to oust Muslims and Christians from the Holy Land. And they are happy to vaporize and maim Palestinian women and children to gain exclusive control. But who cares? Certainly not those in high places in Washington and London whose strings are pulled by the Israel Lobby, a despicable breed who hold life, law and human rights so cheap that they have permitted – no, encouraged and equipped – racists and land thieves to bomb, dispossess and ethnically cleanse Palestinian civilians for 61 years… with impunity.
The trouble is, the Palestinians don’t take it lying down.
I was privileged to meet the crusty old churchman in 2007, when things in Gaza were already unbearable after 18 months of blockade and savage sanctions. For nine years Fr Manuel had been unable to leave the Strip to see his family for fear that the Israelis would block his return and leave his church and school without a priest. We were the first visitors from the outside world he had seen for many months.
He has frequently spoken up about the torment and hardship inflicted on the Gazan people. He has said in plain language what other churchmen – and indeed politicians and diplomats – are afraid to. He told reporters that after 14 years as the parish priest he had seen the humanitarian situation get drastically worse. “Our precious trees have been uprooted. Our buildings have been destroyed. Our streets have been destroyed. Our land has been burnt by bombs and so we cannot produce anything. We are just consumers now. The machines and cars are old. Everything needs to be renewed." And he warned that the people were becoming more aggressive. “There is a lot more hate towards the situation they are in – especially among the young.”
Fr Manuel was also greatly troubled by the exodus of Christians to escape the never-ending Israeli oppression and seek a better life elsewhere, reflecting the worry expressed by many others that Christendom is allowing itself be ‘religiously cleansed’ from the Holy Land with scarcely a murmur of protest. He has seen Gaza’s Christian contingent dwindle to just 5,000 souls out of a tight-packed population of 1.5 million.
He also speaks with anguish of the 1,400 Gazans killed in the latest blitz, the many thousands left homeless and the hundreds of thousands without running water, sanitation, a proper diet or medical care… thanks of course to the already overburdened infrastructure having been blasted to smithereens by US-supplied weaponry and explosives.
In January, at the height of Israel’s killing spree, Fr Manuel sent this message from the smoking ruins to anyone who would listen:
"Our people in Gaza are treated like animals in a zoo. They eat but remain hungry, they cry, but no one wipes their tears. There is no water, no electricity, no food, only fear, terror and blockade… Our children are living in a state of trauma and fear. They are sick from it and for other reasons such as malnutrition, poverty and the cold… The hospitals did not have basic first aid before the war and now thousands of wounded and sick are pouring in and they are performing operations in the corridors. The situation is frightening and sad.
In what seemed like exasperation he added:
“May Christ’s compassion revive our love for God even though it is currently in ‘intensive care’."
A few days later he wrote:
“Hundreds of people have been killed and many more injured in the Israeli invasion. Our people have endured the bombing of their homes, their crops have been destroyed, they have lost everything and many are now homeless. We have endured phosphorus bombs which have caused horrific burns, mainly to civilians. Like the early Christians our people are living through a time of great persecution, a persecution which we must record for future generations as a statement of their faith, hope and love.”
The leaders of the West turned their backs while their obnoxious ‘ally’, with whom they claim to share so many values, committed these and other atrocities against Christians and Muslims. It was their duty to intervene but they didn’t… to the everlasting shame of ordinary, decent American, British and European citizens.
As if this infamy weren’t enough, humanitarian aid and reconstruction materials for Gaza are still obstructed by Israel and the international community is too spineless to ensure they flow. “The destruction has become deeper and deeper,” Fr Manuel is reported as saying. “Things are getting worse and worse. Many, many families are suffering.”
But the resilience of the Palestinians is amazing. Patriarch Fouad recently visited Fr Manuel’s school in Gaza to attend a graduation ceremony that was afterwards described as "a hymn to life and hope… Only a few months after the bloody madness that befell the city, songs, dances, colourful costumes, smiles of the children, joy of the graduated students, proud parents and families have shown that life is not dead in Gaza."
This Catholic school is also highly regarded by Muslim families and many send their children there. My memories include a wonderfully warm welcome by pupils of both faiths in the assembly hall where a huge portrait of the Pope watched over proceedings. On the adjacent wall hung an equally large picture of Yasser Arafat.
I was interested to know how well Fr Manuel got along with the Hamas government and how the two religions interacted and stood together in the face of a common enemy. Prime minister Haniyeh happens to be an imam and the two appeared to be on good terms, both being men of faith and courage. Both are first and foremost Palestinians – passionately so – and this is no doubt just as important to the relationship as professional courtesy.
“The Pope should see Gaza and weep like he has never wept before”
The only official tribute I have seen so far to Fr Manuel says that he “has done great work over the many years he has been in Gaza where he has given a lot to support the Christian community and many others.”
Is that it? Is that all the Church can find to say about one of its most remarkable servants, who has served God and community for many perilous years in the world’s most notorious hell-hole?
I emailed the Latin Patriarchate twice to ask for a copy of their news release on Fr Manuel’s retirement, but received no reply. It’s a poor show when the Church doesn’t hail its heroes. I have now waited five days.
The Vatican’s grasp of public relations is shaky at best, a prize example being Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to skip Gaza on his trip to the Holy Land. Let us hope His Holiness manages to find time between visits to the Yad Vashem memorial and the Wailing Wall, and hob-nobbing with the great and good of the Zionist regime, to say hello to Fr Manuel and acknowledge the dedication and courage of this extraordinary man.
The visit is described by the Vatican as a pilgrimage, which usually suggests a journey of high purpose and moral significance. Will we see the Pope joining the queue of Palestinians at the Bethlehem crossing into Jerusalem and waiting the three humiliating hours it often takes before being allowed to shuffle through the steel barred cattle pens to do a full day’s work? Or being turned back through sheer bloody-mindedness?
Will he bring himself to experience the state-of-the-art dehumanization process at the Erez crossing into Gaza, and be forced to strip to his underwear like so many others? After that he should see Gaza and weep like he has never wept before. At least he’d have something morally significant to talk to Israel’s dignitaries about…
As for Fr Manuel, I doubt if God has finished with him just yet. There’s a mountain of work to be done and good men are hard to find.
– Stuart Littlewood is author of the book Radio Free Palestine, which tells the plight of the Palestinians under occupation. For further information please visit www.radiofreepalestine.co.uk. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.