This Easter, Gaza's Christians are a minority struggling for survival

The religious festival's powerful themes of hope and renewal are being overshadowed by war, but this community has been under pressure for years

Fr Youssef Asaad leads prayers at the Church of the Holy Family in Gaza city on Sunday. Gaza's Christians have been suffering alongside their Muslim neighbours during the Israeli war on the Palestinian enclave. AFP
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For many Christians in the Middle East, Easter is not only a time of spiritual reflection and communal celebration, it is one characterised by powerful themes of hope and renewal. For Gaza’s small Christian minority, this important religious event is being marked in what is also a time of profound suffering. As Pope Francis put it in a recent letter addressed to Catholics in the Holy Land, this year is "so overshadowed by the Passion and, as yet, so little by the Resurrection".

Indeed, this “Passion” – the anguish that is an intrinsic part of the Easter story – is sadly reflected in the past six months of strife that have taken their toll on Palestinian Christians in Gaza and the West Bank. In addition to the bombardment, displacement and hunger they have experienced alongside their Muslim neighbours as Israel responds to Hamas’s October 7 attacks, Christians’ religious and cultural life has also been disrupted by war and occupation.

Christmas in Palestine was a sombre affair last year. In December, the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem – the birthplace of Jesus – set up the traditional nativity display of the infant. However, instead of the newborn child lying in a manger surrounded by family and visitors, he reclined amid lumps of rubble, wrapped in a keffiyeh. Christians sheltering in a church in northern Gaza on Christmas Eve were forced to rely on aid drops from Jordanian planes, and as far away as Canada, Orthodox Christians told The National that they refused to celebrate Christmas so long as Israel's war continued to rage.

The acute nature of the current challenges faced by Palestinian Christians is bad enough, but the minuscule community in Gaza has been under pressure for years. Like their Muslim neighbours, Gazan Christians have been separated from friends and family in the West Bank by the occupation. This has also extended to previous Easter celebrations, where Gazans’ ability to travel to Jerusalem for religious rites has been at the discretion of those who issue Israeli travel permits.

The economic blockade of Gaza has also taken its toll, with many of Christians leaving for good by relocating to Europe, the US, Australia and Latin America. In his letter, Pope Francis noted that the Hamas attack and Israeli response had also “seriously restricted the number of pilgrims to the Holy Land, which impacts the livelihood of many Christian families”, adding that “heightened Israeli security measures have meant that many Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, cannot cross the border to work”.

Before the blockade, Gaza's Christian population was about 3,000 people. By the end of 2019, their numbers barely exceed 1,000. How many will be left when this conflict ends is unknown amid so much uncertainty.

In addition, it is a bitter irony that while some of Israel’s most fervent and influential foreign supporters describe themselves as evangelical Christians – many of whom will be celebrating Easter this weekend without war and occupation – some are seemingly unmoved by the marginalisation, dispossession and violence meted out to Palestine’s Christian community, one that has centuries of history in the Holy Land.

Nevertheless, solidarity and faith remain. Pope Francis continues to be in daily contact with the Catholic community at Gaza’s Church of the Holy Family. Parish priest Fr Gabriele Romanelli told Vatican News in November that although there is “no safe place in all the Gaza Strip, neither in the North nor in the South”, his parishioners “feel the presence of Jesus, the closeness of Jesus and of the whole church”.

Great steadfastness is demanded of Gaza’s Christians and the wider Palestinian community. Almost six months of bombardment from air, sea and land have turned their society into ruins. The prospect of a similar scenario playing out for months to come is one too appalling to contemplate. What we are seeing is a community struggling for survival.

Published: March 29, 2024, 3:00 AM
Updated: March 31, 2024, 10:00 AM