Gaza’s Parish Priest Yearns to Return to His Beleaguered Flock

Currently stranded in Jerusalem and prevented from returning to Gaza by Israel, Father Gabriel Romanelli discusses the plight of his congregation with the Register. He wants to be home, especially for Easter.

Palestinian Catholics attend Mass at Holy Family Church on Palm Sunday in the al-Zaitoun neighborhood of Gaza City on March 24.
Palestinian Catholics attend Mass at Holy Family Church on Palm Sunday in the al-Zaitoun neighborhood of Gaza City on March 24. (photo: AFP via Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — For more than five months, Father Gabriel Romanelli has been living in Jerusalem, but his heart is in Gaza. 

The parish priest of Gaza’s tiny Catholic community based at Holy Family Church, Father Romanelli was visiting Bethlehem, in the West Bank, on Oct. 6, the day before Hamas infiltrated Gaza, killed about 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals, and kidnapped 250 more. Soon afterward, Israel sealed its border with Gaza, making it impossible for Father Romanelli to return to his flock.  

“I was in Bethlehem getting medication for our sisters. The next day was Shabbat, and Israel closes its border crossings on Shabbat,” said Father Romanelli, who is an Argentinian priest of the Institute of the Incarnate Word. “By Sunday, it was too late.”

Father Gabriel Romanelli
Father Gabriel Romanelli(Photo: National Catholic Register)

The Israeli government has denied the requests of the local Church, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, to allow him to return to Gaza. The Israel Defense Forces’ representative’s office did not respond to the Register’s emails. 

Father Romanelli speaks to the parish’s only other priest, Father Youssef Asaad, every day by phone — at least when there is cellphone service in Gaza. However, he yearns to be home, especially for Easter. 

“If I was there, I could help; I could support our priest there,” he said, looking wistful during an interview at the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. “This is not the first war in Gaza, but no other war compares to this one.” 

About 30,000 Palestinians have been killed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) since the start of the war, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Israel estimates that 13,000 were armed terrorists. Almost 2,000 Israelis have been killed, including 600 security forces. Hamas, which has built hundreds of miles of underground tunnels, has embedded itself within the civilian population, especially schools and hospitals, according to the IDF.

Of the 1,017 Christians living in Gaza before Oct. 7, about 750 remain, according to Church officials. More than 200 have left Gaza, mainly to Australia, and 31 have been killed by Israeli bombs or gunfire, or from wounds or illness. 

“It’s very hard. All the people we have lost, who died, I knew them, one by one,” Father Romanelli said.   

Like other Palestinians, virtually all Christians in Gaza have been displaced from their destroyed or damaged homes. About 550 Christians and 54 disabled Muslim children who lived in the parish’s Mother Teresa home have taken refuge at Holy Family Church, while more than 200 are sheltering at the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrius. 

The compound housing the Catholic church “is not a hotel,” Father Romanelli said. “It means living in classrooms of the school for five months” with no running water or electricity. The church’s generator runs only about an hour a day — enough time to heat water from an underground well and to charge phones and a water purifier. 

To minister to the hungry people in Gaza, Father Romanelli said the church manages to prepare food and bake bread — and communion wafers. The refugees have been organized into committees, where some work in the kitchen, with others in the school, while others maintain order in the cramped compound or provide security.

The priests and women religious of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, a missionary institute, have continued to forge ahead after its founder, Father Carlos Miguel Buela, who died in 2023, was asked to resign by the Vatican in 2010. And in 2016, a Vatican investigation found that he had committed sexual misconduct with adult seminarians. 

Israel insists that more food is entering Gaza now than prior to Oct. 7, but contends that Hamas has stolen much of it, either for its own use or to sell at exorbitant prices. Humanitarian organizations say that even when food arrives, battles between Hamas and Israeli troops often make it impossible to deliver the aid.

While Father Romanelli is separated from his parish by 60 miles and a checkpoint, he is fully engaged from afar with the everyday running of the church as well as its Easter preparations. 

“Thank God, we have prayers every day, Holy Mass, the holy Rosary every day.” But because the sale of alcohol in Muslim-dominated Gaza is forbidden, the church’s supply of sacramental wine is running very low, and only tiny amounts are used during religious services. So right now, Father Asaad, the vicar of the parish, celebrates only one Mass a day. 

“In this time of Lent, we pray the Way of the Cross every Friday. We prepare the altar boys, and the girls help the sisters. The church continues to be an oasis,” both figuratively and literally, the pastor said.  

Even so, Father Romanelli understands why Palestinians, including some Christians, wish to leave Gaza permanently. 

“We saw on Oct. 7 how one event can change a life,” he said, referring to both the Palestinians and Israelis affected by the Hamas massacre and subsequent war. “There have been thousands of bombs. Who can begrudge the joy and serenity of a new start?” 

At the same time, those who depart leave behind their land, their family, their friends, their loved ones’ graves and their church, the priest noted. 

There is also the fear that Gaza’s tiny-yet-proud Christian community — including 135 Catholics — could disappear due to the war or decrease considerably. That would be a catastrophe not only for the Church, but for the Muslims of Gaza who depend on a variety of Christian institutions.

The parish runs three Catholic schools that teach more than 2,400 students, as well as a home for disabled children and another for older adults. More than 60 “butterfly” children with epidermolysis bullosa, a group of rare genetic diseases that make the skin dangerously fragile, benefit from a parish program that enables them to live at home with their families.    

The parish also runs a youth center and aids the poor. 

Preserving the dwindling Christian community “is good for Palestinian society,” Father Romanelli said. At the same time, the decision of whether or not to remain in Gaza “is not a decision of the church. When there are families who want to leave, we try to help. The majority have chosen to stay now. Perhaps some will leave in the future.” 

Despite unbearable hardships, people in the Christian community of Gaza continue to hope and pray for a better future.

“There is no safe place in Gaza, so we put our faith in Jesus during this Holy Week to give courage and to stop this war. We pray for peace, for justice, without revenge.”

Pope Francis participates in Mass on the solemnity of Pentecost, May 19, 2024

Pope Francis on Pentecost: The Holy Spirit’s Work in Us Is Powerful

In his homily, Pope Francis explained how the Holy Spirit helps us to overcome sinful passions and then gently plants the seeds of virtue and helps them to grow. The Pope also recommended that people spend time praying in silence in Eucharistic adoration to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit.