Latin Patriarch Pizzaballa’s visit provides Palestinians a basic human need: Hope

(RNS) — Ever since he became the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa has paid careful attention to his flock, especially those in under-visited areas and communities. But this weekend’s visit to Gaza will be recorded as his most courageous.

Pizzaballa, made a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2022, is the archbishop of Catholics loyal to Rome across Israel, Jordan, the occupied territories and Cyprus. On his unannounced visit to the Gaza Strip on Thursday (May 16), he met with the small Palestinian congregation taking refuge in the territory’s Church of the Holy Family. In December, two women who had evacuated to the church were killed by an Israel Defense Forces sniper while trying to reach a restroom in a convent across a courtyard.

Those sheltering in the church were Palestinian Christians who were unable to relocate as the Israeli army ordered Gaza City residents to move south at the beginning of the current conflict. Palestinian Christians who were financially able dished out an average of $5,000 in bribes to border agents to escape the hell of the Israeli war on civilians. Those who did go south are now facing orders to find another refuge. 

Pizzaballa was accompanied by Fra’ Alessandro de Franciscis, grand hospitaller of the Knights of Malta, and the Rev. Gabriele Romanelli, a priest in Gaza, as he met with the congregation of Holy Family to deliver a message of hope and solidarity. After presiding at Mass in the church with the local community, he paid a courtesy visit to St. Porphyrius, the Greek Orthodox Church that was hit by Israeli ordnance on Oct. 19 as hundreds huddled inside.

The visit is the first stage of a joint humanitarian mission of the Latin Patriarchate and the Knights of Malta, in collaboration with Malteser International and other partners, aiming to deliver life-saving food and medical help to the population in Gaza.

But it is also an important but subtle reminder that the Israel-Hamas war is not a religious one and certainly not a Jewish-Muslim conflict, stressing the often ignored fact that the Palestinian people are not of a single faith or a movement. Pro-Israeli propagandists regularly bundle Palestinians with radical Islamic movements such as the Islamic State, just as all pro-Palestinian protests are often wrongly referred to as pro-Hamas or pro-terror.

Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, center in vestments with red stripe, poses in a group photo with parishioners of the Holy Family Parish in Gaza City on May 16, 2024. (Photo by Issa Anton/Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem)

Besides a photo showing the patriarch meeting with the local congregation, there has been no official statement about the visit, the impressions of the patriarch or of his delegation. It is not clear how the Catholic leader from Jerusalem coordinated the visit with the Israeli army, which still surrounds the church.

The patriarch is the only such appearance by any public or private personality, political, artistic or religious, since the war began. Not a single foreign journalist has been allowed to visit Gaza, a stricture aimed at demoralizing Palestinians. But his visit has given the morale of the Palestinians in general and Palestinian Christians in particular an inestimable boost.

The Christian population in Gaza has been dwindling since Hamas took control over the enclave after elections in 2007. From 3,000 known Christians that year, those registering as Christian as the war began numbered fewer than 1,000.

Since Israel began its seven-month-long war of retribution on the Palestinians, it is estimated that nearly 3% of the remaining Christians have been killed, including those killed in the shelling of St. Porphyrius, the third oldest church in the world. Israeli shells have also caused the burning of the Baptist Church in Gaza, the Anglican Hospital (formerly the Baptist Hospital) as well as scores of Muslim houses of worship, schools, bakeries, universities and thousands of ordinary homes and even high-rise buildings.

Amid the many humanitarian needs of the Palestinians in Gaza, perhaps the greatest unmet need is the intangible gift of hope. Politicians on all sides use the war on Palestine to score political points and take sides as if this was a football game, not the lives and futures of human beings.

Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa visits the Holy Family Parish in Gaza City on May 16, 2024. (Photo by Issa Anton/Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem)

Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa visits the Holy Family Parish in Gaza City on May 16, 2024. (Photo by Issa Anton/Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem)

Pizzaballa’s visit may not have made major headlines, likely because he and his aides have purposely kept it low-key. But the kernel of hope the patriarch gave to his flock is badly needed.

Will the visit be a unique event or will we find other men and women of courage to do what they have to do to be able to plant the seeds of hope that are badly needed for all Palestinians?

(Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem and the publisher of The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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