By Stuart Littlewood – London
A very moving message from the elderly priest who leads the Christian community in Gaza, Fr Manuel Mussallam, has just arrived in my computer inbox.
This remarkable and much-respected man of the Catholic church runs the best school in Gaza, where some 70% of the pupils are, believe it or not, Muslim. I was lucky enough to meet him in Gaza about a year ago when the situation was already dire.
People ought to understand that the starvation, hardship and slaughter did not begin with the Israeli air offensive on 27 December. It had been going on since before the election of Hamas in early 2006 and the spiteful siege immediately imposed by Israel and the US and supported by Britain and the EU. Between 2005 and 2008 the Israelis killed nearly 1,250 Palestinians in Gaza, including 222 children.
"From the valley of tears," says Fr Manuel in greeting, "from Gaza that is sinking in its own blood, the blood that has strangled the joy in the hearts of one and a half million inhabitants, I send you this message of faith and hope. But the message of love is imprisoned, choked in our throats as Christians. We do not venture to even say it to ourselves.
"The priests of the Church today are raising hope as a banner, so that God will have mercy on us and have compassion on us and keep a remnant of himself in Gaza so that the light of Christ that was lit by Deacon Philip at the establishment of the church will not be extinguished and will continue to shine in Gaza.
“May Christ’s compassion revive our love for God even though it is currently in ‘intensive care’."
Deacon Philip, if I remember correctly, was one of the Seven Deacons appointed by the Apostles.
She went to complain to her Creator and request a home and a refuge
In his message Fr Manuel reports the first Christian casualty in this Gaza war – Christine Wadi al-Turk, a pupil at his school. "Christine was in the tenth grade and she died this morning, Friday January 2, as a result of fear and the cold. The windows in her home were open to protect the children from flying glass caused by bomb blasts. The bomb that hit her neighbour’s home caused her whole body to shake in horror. She could not bear all this, so she went to complain to her Creator about her situation and request a home and a refuge where there is no crying, screaming or wailing, but joy and happiness."
He is concerned that what we in the West see on TV is only a fraction of the harsh reality. "The television and radio cannot transmit the whole truth because of its enormity… The bitter siege on Gaza has become a hurricane that is growing every hour until it has become a war crime, a crime against humanity.
"The children of Gaza and their parents are sleeping in the corridors of their homes, or in the toilets and bathrooms for their protection. They are trembling with fear at every voice, movement and shelling and the heavy bombing by F-16 planes. It is true that these planes have mostly targeted the main government and Hamas headquarters, but these are near people’s homes and are not more than 6 metres away, which is the legal distance between buildings. Therefore, people’s homes have been severely damaged and many children have died because of this.
"Our children are living in a state of trauma and fear. They are sick from it and for other reasons such as the lack of food, 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."
He illustrates the chaos and confusion with a story about the Abdel Latif family. "One of their sons disappeared during the first bombing and his family looked for him, but could not find him on the first or the second day of the war. On the third day, while searching the hospital, they came upon the Jaradah family who were surrounding one of their injured sons. This young man had had a leg amputated and his face was disfigured, not directly by a bomb but because shattered glass had fallen on him while he was lying in the hospital during an air raid. The Abdel Latif family approached the Jaradah family to console them, and when they saw the injured man, Mr. Abdel Latif felt sure that this was his son and not the son of the Jaradah family. Amid the family controversy, they waited for the wounded man to wake up and say his name and so settle the argument…"
I read that on the first day of the air assault up to 250 Palestinians died, which suggests around 1,000 maimed and injured, so the sudden impact on an already overstretched and seriously disabled hospital service must have been appalling.
"Our people in Gaza are treated like animals in a zoo,” continues Fr Manuel. “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… Yesterday the bakery refused to give me bread, the reason being that the baker did not wish to disrespect my priesthood by supplying me with flour unfit for humans. The good flour had run out, and what flour he had was unfit for human consumption. I have avowed to not eat bread for the duration of this war."
The Road to Peace is Peace
Appealing to the wider world Fr Manuel says: “We want you to raise your continuous prayers to God, and not to hold a mass or service without remembering the suffering of Gaza before God. We have all agreed to pray this prayer at the top of every hour:
O Lord of peace, rain peace on us; O Lord of peace, grant peace to our land. Have mercy, O Lord, on your people and do not keep us in enmity forever.
“Love does not recognize political and social barriers, wars and so on. When your love reaches us, it makes us feel that we, in Gaza, are an integral part of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and our Muslim brothers and sisters in our midst are our people and our destiny, we have what they have and we suffer like they do, we are all the people of Palestine.
“In the midst of all this, our people in Gaza reject war as a means for peace and confirm that the road to peace is peace. We in Gaza are steadfast: between slavery and death, we have no choice.”
Fr Manuel ends by saying: "We want to live to praise the Lord in Palestine and witness for Christ, we want to live for Palestine, not die for it, but if death is imposed on us, we will not die except honest, brave and strong."
Now that’s what I call a priest.
-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.