GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Life in Gaza is miserable under the best of circumstances, but it has deteriorated to the point of desperation since Israel began a retaliatory assault on Hamas strongholds.

That’s according to the elderly parish priest who ministers to the Gaza Strip’s small number of Catholics.

Israel Dec. 27 began its assault on the narrow, crowded area, home to more than 1 million Muslims and about 3,000 Christians, after Hamas fired more than 100 rockets into Israeli towns and cities. A six-month ceasefire had just expired.

“We Christians are relatively safe so far, our schools and church are relatively safe so far, but we, like our Muslim brothers, are under siege,” Father Manuel Mussallem told the Register in a phone interview from Gaza.

Father Mussallem said that Palestinian civil society has all but collapsed in the wake of the Israeli incursion.

“We have almost no water, electricity or food. We cannot sleep. I don’t think the Israelis are targeting us specifically — they are targeting Hamas and Islamic Jihad military targets — but our schools and church are in neighborhoods that have been hit.”

Father Mussallem said he could not hold a Sunday Mass Dec. 28 because buildings near the church located about 150 feet away were destroyed.

“We have two schools. One is close to the church and the second, the Holy Family School, is about three kilometers [1.8 miles] away. Buildings 200 meters [about 650 feet] away have been damaged.”

The parish priest said all Gaza schools, including those run by the Church, have been closed for the duration of the war.

“It is too dangerous, and there is no transportation,” he said. “The children are too afraid to leave their homes.”

Father Mussallem said Gaza’s tiny Christian community is extremely poor and relies almost entirely on assistance from UNRWA, the United Nations aid agency for refugees. Although Catholic organizations like Caritas and the Pontifical Mission for Palestine provide medical care, vocational training and some other help, “it’s not nearly enough to sustain us,” he said, sounding weary.

“We ask all Christians around the world to first of all pray for us.”

In Solidarity

Pope Benedict XVI called on both Israelis and Palestinians to end the cycle of violence, which has caused so much suffering for civilians on both sides of the border.

“The earthly homeland of Jesus cannot continue to be a witness to such bloodshed, which is repeated without end,” the Pope said during his noon blessing at the Vatican on Dec. 28. “I implore the end of the violence, which must be condemned in all its forms, and a restoration of the truce in the Gaza Strip.”

Israeli officials have begun planning for a spring 2009 pilgrimage by the Pope, “but Vatican sources have said a worsening of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could alter the Pope’s travel plans,” Catholic News Service reported.

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal and the heads of the other major churches in the Holy Land called on both parties to the conflict “to return to their senses and refrain from all violent acts, which only bring destruction and tragedy,” and urged them “instead to work to resolve their differences through peaceful and non-violent means.”

The Church heads also called on warring Palestinian factions “to put the interests of the Palestinian people above personal and factional interests.”

Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custos of the Holy Land, said the current stalemate has fostered “a lot of frustration” and uncertainty in the local Christian community.

Father Pizzaballa said Catholics in the West Bank, which, unlike Gaza, is not under Hamas control, canceled a scouts’ march last Sunday “out of solidarity” for their brethren in Gaza. “Only religious services are being held,” he said.

At times like this, the custos said, Church officials “feel powerless but not helpless. We are speechless, sometimes, as well. We agree that what Hamas did was absolutely unacceptable, but the Israeli reaction has been beyond any proportion.”

The Israeli government insists that its reaction is appropriate, in light of the numerous rocket attacks Hamas has perpetrated against Israeli civilians.

Father Pizzaballa urged Palestinian Christians not to give up hope.

“This is not the first time we have seen such violence, and unfortunately, it will likely not be the last,” he said. “We will need to build up relations between the parties from the beginning, but now is obviously not the right time. For now, we can only pray and show our solidarity.”

Back in Gaza, Father Mussallem counts the days until his transfer from Gaza to the West Bank, scheduled for the end of January.

“I will not retire, but I have my family, my house, my land, my brother and sisters in Bir Zeit” in the West Bank. The church, he said, is looking for a replacement.

Asked whether finding a replacement is likely, given the violence, Father Mussallem, who has spent the past 13 and a half years in turbulent Gaza, bursts into nervous laughter.

“If they don’t find someone, I’ll remain here,” Mussallem said. “The community here needs guidance.”

Michele Chabin is

based in Jerusalem.

How to Help Contributions to assist Gaza Catholics (this should be specified in a letter) may be sent to Father Humam Khzouz, Chancellor, the Latin Patriarchate, Jaffa Gate, P.O. BOX 14152 Jerusalem 91141 Israel.