A daily call from Pope Francis gives hope to Catholics sheltering in Gaza church

About 500 Christians are taking refuge in Holy Parish Church and will not move out despite Israeli warnings to move south

About 500 Christians have taken refuge in the only remaining Roman Catholic Church, the Holy Family Church, in Gaza. Photo: Church of the Holy Family for the Latins
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A small community of Christians sheltering in the last remaining Roman Catholic church in Gaza receive a daily call from Pope Francis to inquire about their safety.

Priests and nuns gather to hear the Pope speak in the stairwell of the Holy Family Church which is a sanctuary to about 500 Christians from neighbouring areas taking shelter from air strikes.

Israeli forces have ordered everyone in Gaza to move south but parishioners have said they will not leave the church located in Gaza city.

The first phone call from Pope Francis came on Monday night and has been followed by daily check-ins ever since.

Every day becomes more difficult with the bombardment because we don’t have electricity and water
Sister Nabila Saleh of the Rosary Sisters School in Gaza

“Every day the Pope calls us, he prays for all of us and comforts us,” Sister Nabila Saleh of the Rosary Sisters School in Gaza told The National.

“Pope Francis is working to make peace possible.

“We know we are in his prayers.”

The Pope has asked how many people have taken refuge in the parish and the support they require.

“He knows the pain and suffering of the people,” said the nun who manages a nearby Catholic school and has lived in Gaza for about a decade.

The calls offer some hope and comfort to the tight-knit community. Many of those in the parish lost their homes in Israeli strikes that began on October 7 after Hamas militants attacked Israeli settlements near the border taking hostages and killing about 1,400 people.

Bombings by the Israeli forces have killed more than 3,800 people and injured about 12,500.

Supplies are running low

There are about 100 children among those staying in the church. Some members of the congregation have lost their homes and belongings since the war started and have taken shelter in the church.

They sleep and eat within the church compound.

Mass is celebrated twice a day and candlelight prayers are held in the evening when the power supply fails. On Sunday, a baptism ceremony was conducted for children.

“The situation is very difficult and every day becomes more difficult with the bombardment because we don’t have electricity and water,” Sister Saleh said.

“But we make an effort to give food and water to all the people who live here with us in the church.

“We too have left our school and are in the Holy Family Church.”

Sister Saleh said the daily prayers give courage to the congregation and the children distressed by the nearby strikes.

“We need everything (supplies) but we have to manage,” she said.

“We don’t know what will happen next but we have faith in God.

“We give people support when we pray – it’s important because the children cry with the bombarding.”

In his weekly address at St Peter’s Square on Wednesday, Pope Francis urged for “everything possible to be done to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe”.

“The number of victims is growing and the situation in Gaza is desperate,” he said.

“Lay down weapons and heed the cries for peace from the poor, the people and the innocent children.”

'Will not move out of church'

In Gaza, a community of about 1,000 Christians have taken shelter in the Roman Catholic church and a nearby Greek Orthodox church.

George Anton, a manager with Caritas, a Catholic humanitarian organisation, said the scale of the bombing was frightening.

Israel has asked people in northern Gaza to evacuate for their own safety, but parishioners said they would not leave the church compound.

“We will not move out of our church,” said Mr Anton who has lived in Gaza since 1995.

“This is our decision. We will remain in our church.

“We are safe in the church for the time being.

“But we don’t know what will happen in like five minutes.

“From our experience of previous wars, we knew this time would be very heavy.”

Like others, he moved with his wife and three children to the compound of the church as soon as hostilities escalated.

His neighbourhood, 10 minutes from the church, has been destroyed by Israeli strikes.

“We have seen destruction and war before but not like this,” he said.

“No place is safe on the Gaza Strip.

“Our neighbourhoods were wiped out totally.

“It is terrifying, especially for the children.

“We can only tell our children to remain strong and we will pray for this war to end.”

Updated: October 19, 2023, 3:40 PM