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from issue no. 09 - 2006

PALESTINE. The State that still does not exist

Chronicles from prison

«Here Christians and Muslims are a single people». A meeting with Father Manuel Musallam. The only Catholic priest of Latin rite in Gaza

by Father Manuel Musallam

He’s there with the Rosary Sisters, the Little Sisters of Jesus, the sisters of Mother Teresa, and that’s it. Of Catholic priests, of Latin rite there’s just him in Gaza, Father Manuel Musallam. Born in Birzeit in 1938, near Jerusalem, they saw him grow in the seminary of Beit Jalla and become priest in 1963. He was in a parish in Jordan, then in Jenin and finally, since 1993, in Gaza – where there is one parish, the only one, that goes back to 1747, The Holy Family Church. Father Manuel goes around armed only with the energy of priest out on the frontier, we would say here, and of his very great patience. But after the closing of the border with Israel and even more after the war in Lebanon and the military action – never finished – in the Occupied Territories, it’s no mistake to say that the people living in Gaza, innocent or guilty, are already on the verge of hell, where one dies by the day.
Father Musallam fights his battle by describing what is happening to thousands of people by email, without censorship. What follows instead is what he gave us after a long interview.
It’s a genuinely Palestinian point of view, expressed with spontaneity, that helps understand better.

Giovanni Cubeddu

The desperation of the family of a Palestinian killed by Israeli forces in Gaza, 30 August 2006

The desperation of the family of a Palestinian killed by Israeli forces in Gaza, 30 August 2006

We all live in a big prison, Gaza. You can imagine the state of mind of a nation kept in chains. And not just in a metaphorical sense: about half the Palestinian population has passed through Israeli jails. The border has been closed for a long time. And still, at any moment food supplies can be halted at the checkpoints, and one lives in constant company of the painful feeling that one may find oneself some day or the other without anything to eat. We have no electricity here. Living a day without electricity is already a problem, you imagine it for months and months, day and night, houses, schools, shops, hospitals… In a normal life, at the end of a working day, a family can gather, eat together, even receive friends. Here no. The children, for example, who as you know fear the dark, no longer move freely from one room to another, and with every noise from outside they start running, and they may crash into walls in the dark, hurt themselves. It’s happened and happens that they break an arm or a leg. Every now and again, in the houses of Gaza, one hears babies howling and crying, without an apparent reason, and without us being able to understand what is really happening inside them.
In our mentality the dark is the place of the devil, of ghosts, of fears.
And when the electricity comes on, maybe for three or four hours, these Israeli robot planes fly overhead that among other things disturb television reception, and with it the possibility of “escaping” at least a bit. It’s a continual exasperation that arouses constant, deep dissatisfaction. One notices that everyone in Gaza is angry, they often yell instead of speaking, they easily become violent among themselves.
There’s a lack of running water. We’re accustomed to drawing water from the wells, to drink, wash, in so far as it’s possible…
And now the strikes also. No public employee has received a wage for six months, only small advances, and they can’t live any more. We have the teachers’ strike, and so the children don’t go to school. And then, even when a pupil can attend, usually there’s no money to buy books, pay for transport, and they’re forced to walk for three or four kilometers to reach school. And certainly they don’t have money to buy a snack at school, a sweet. How can one teach a child in these difficulties?
In the Occupied Territories we are up against a historical crime against a whole people, mainly children, women, the elderly, all innocent and punished because they live in Gaza
And how is it possible to speak to a family without food, electricity, water, wages? Today the families of Gaza are forced to beg. But beg from whom? There’s nobody in a position to give anything. In the shops food is bought on credit. And the shopkeeper may agree to get his money in a few days, even some weeks, but he can’t wait for six months…
This drama is general in Gaza.
Apart from all that, we have the threat from the sky, the bombing. One here, another there, today they’ve killed one, yesterday another. Imagine that many families by now gather only in the cemeteries, and very often… because each family has a martyr. How can a country live for long in a situation of the kind? At a certain moment it will explode, and we feel the moment drawing near. The violence has reached into the minds of children even, has already invaded that of families and is present in the schoolbooks.
Today, when children read something, they first of all look for passages that tell of challenges, fights, killings. A few days ago a pupil at my school came to me bringing some poems he had written in Arabic and in English. He gave them to me: «Father, please read them». I’m keen on helping this little kid at school, he’s likeable, intelligent, he’s in third grade. But everything he’s written was pessimism, fear and the wish to die, to get this life over. To die once and for all… for him there is no more love, beauty, life doesn’t make sense any more. I was unable to find a single happy word in those pages. I passed them on to the teachers to photocopy. They want me to summon the boy to talk to him.
He’s not the only one, all his contemporaries are going through similar difficulties. They’re only kids, children… why must we stand by at this tragedy, at the occupation, still? Isn’t the world sufficiently convinced that reducing a country to hunger, violence, prison is a war crime? It doesn’t understand it? They’ll understand it when a war breaks out, that the Palestinian don’t want (even when they go to meet death they do it to liberate themselves).
Father Manuel Musallam saying Mass 
in the parish of the Holy Family in Gaza

Father Manuel Musallam saying Mass in the parish of the Holy Family in Gaza

Let me tell you a true story that happened in Gaza, not far from my parish. A boy of sixteen, who was living with his large family without work, going out one day, saw his sister begging at the entrance to a mosque. He went back home, wrote a brief letter to the father and mother, then went to attack an Israeli frontier post. He went to face death. Three hours later he was brought back on a stretcher, dead. Then they discovered the letter he had written: «Father, mother, I love you. I wanted to live for Palestine, but I have avenged you. I have endangered my life, I have killed myself so as to spare a piece of bread for one of my brothers. Now you are no longer ten, but are nine. Now you can feed everybody in the family». This is not the story of one person alone, there are others, each day.
Was that young man a terrorist? In the Occupied Territories we are up against a historical crime against a whole people, mainly children, women, the elderly, all innocent and punished because they live in Gaza. Who has the responsibility for protect ing them from the captivity imposed today by the State of Israel? Many Palestinian by now see no other alternative than between slavery and death.
I was brought up for peace, I live for peace, I preach peace, and I could never be violent, for all the good I have received from my family and from my faith. But when I stand before my people, my faithful in church, what can I tell them? I continue to ask them to put up with it. We Christians can accept suffering with the help of the Lord. But if this suffering goes over the limit, in a situation like this… even a priest sometimes lacks words. Patience, accepting… all the community, even the nuns present, asks me: «Till when?». We have no light before us, even a distant one, that allows us to say: «There is the solid land that will save us».
The Palestinians see that the international community is refusing to speak with them. It is not we who have threatened Israel, on the contrary. Today unfortunately there is an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, held hostage, a prisoner, while Israel holds ten thousand Palestinians, among them ministers of Parliament... In Israel there are those who speak about Shalit as if a world war should break out. This is what they have done in Lebanon. For two soldiers they have destroyed the Lebanon. If two soldiers are so dear to the people of Israel, why should not all these people be so for the Palestinians? We are all persons like those soldiers.
I’m afraid that in Israel they’re not preparing a period of peace. It’s not prepared by these means, but with development, welfare, work, affluence. War instead can be worked out on paper: enough to close the borders, send the airplanes. For war an instant is enough. Peace is like a child that first must be conceived in its mother’s womb, in the heart of a nation, then it must be born into the world and watched every moment, otherwise it dies.
I was born in Palestine in 1938, and since then I have never seen one day of peace here, not even one.
Here the Christians are Arabs, and they are part of the Palestinian nation. And there are no differences between Christians and Muslims: we live together, we eat together, we work together. In the two Catholic schools of Gaza, of which I am the director, there are twelve hundred students and more than eighty teachers. They are co-ed schools, with Christians and Muslims, male and female. We have only 143 Christians, all the others are Muslims. Yesterday I attended a wedding among Muslims near our school, I offered them our electricity for the reception, at which some Christians were present also. As the Muslims come to our weddings, to our baptisms, they come in church on particular occasions. When His Beatitude the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, came to Gaza, the Muslims gave him a sincere welcome and we all had lunch together. When the apostolic delegate Monsignor Antonio Franco came to Gaza – as special delegate of His Holiness – to bring support and to let us know that the Pope is close and prays for us, on 20 August last, he was greeted by all, there were even ministers of the Hamas government, members of Parliament, Muslims and Christians. Some of them even came to church, like the governor of Gaza. The delegate Monsignor Franco was received by the Muslim religious leaders and was able to visit the great mosque of Gaza, that was originally a church.
Here in Gaza we refuse to distinguish between Muslims and Christians. Today we are all suffering together... The Christians in Gaza are the people of Palestine. And they are not afraid of being attacked by the Muslims, the majority of whom are altogether contrary to actions against the Christians
Here in Gaza we refuse to distinguish between Muslims and Christians. Today, the whole nation and the people of Palestine, all suffer together, they share the same fears.
Let me tell you something of the life of faith, the thing that counts most.
This year there have been special prayer meetings: during the summer, from the beginning of May up to mid August, for three and a half months, every day we have celebrated mass in the presence of around fifty people and each time we have commented on a psalm, up to Psalm 74. The Christians aren’t many, around two hundred Catholics, three thousand Orthodox, plus a small number of Baptists.
It’s a small community, but we are respected, loved by our Muslim neighbors, welcomed in their houses. There have never been threats against us, we are friends, I am a friend also of the prime minister. We don’t ask for any outside help to be protected, we are protected by our own people, which is a single people. This is the situation. If we’re afraid, like all the others, it’s because the police still can’t manage the situation. We live all together in Gaza as in a prison, as if we are being punished, but so far we have not lost our faith, our hope, our charity.
On Sundays the church is full: our people like to pray, like listening to the Word of God, they are keen on it. It’s enough for the Christians to hear that there is a meeting in the Orthodox church, or that a Catholic priest is going to preach elsewhere, and everybody goes. They follow us.
I have been designated by the president of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmud Abbas, to head the Department for the Christians of the Foreign Office – where there are also departments for the Jews and for the Muslims. So every two weeks I write a brief note, and send it by email to around ten thousand addresses of individuals, parishes, etc., throughout the world. Those who receive it can use the text and everything I send, and if there are questions, we answer. They can help us in a great many ways: talking about us, praying for us, contributing to build schools, to organize courses for the students, adopting a student or a family: if three or four people abroad get together and donate maybe a hundred dollars a month, that is eighty euro, a family in Gaza will have enough to live. Even with only ten dollars one can change for a day the face of a class of children, make them happy, spread joy, encourage boys and families to live. The whole Church must help the Christians here to survive, so that we can help the Muslims build our State.
The number of Christians isn’t growing, not even with the new births, because many are leaving the country. If the Christians in Palestine don’t receive help, they will shrink away till they disappear. Take Jerusalem: in 1967 the Christians numbered around 60,000, now they are 7,000. It’s critical. I thank God that I’ve been made head of this Department for Christian Affairs, because it frees me to speak officially on behalf of my people, and implore justice, peace, food and freedom.
Looking for survivors among the rubble of a building bombed by the Israelis in Gaza, 
12 July 2006

Looking for survivors among the rubble of a building bombed by the Israelis in Gaza, 12 July 2006

Now there is this quarrel about the Pope’s words on Islam.
The Christians in Gaza are the people of Palestine. And they are not afraid of being attacked by the Muslims, the majority of whom are altogether contrary to actions against the Christians. They know us very well, and we also have friends in Hamas. On 18 September, at the height of the virulent diatribes on the Pope’s speech, I paid a visit to the Mufti of Gaza together with a group of Christians and we talked for two hours. We left contented, because he promised us to calm all those who were trying to speak evil of the Christians in the mosques. The government, the prime minister, the Fatah party and the governor of Gaza have already spoken out several times to smooth the waters. The governor of Gaza, accompanied by spokesmen of the various political parties and many members of the Palestinian Parliament, have come to the parish to give us support. On 19 September we visited the governor, glad to listen to him and learn how many times he had already written in the newspapers in our favor. That same day I called the office of Prime Minister Hanyieh, and they guaranteed me support. The Minister of the Interior had sent police to guard churches and schools from the very first moment, twenty-four hours a day, but nobody has tried to damage our church or the schools (some boys instead threw home-made “noise” bombs at the Orthodox church, without anything coming of it).
There’s calm. The police are making sure that places of worship and the schools are left alone, there is no danger for Christians, even though we read here and there of threats, but without any basis. As Christians, we feel that the Holy Father has dealt with a topic that has exposed us to danger, but we are convinced that he is innocent of the accusations made against him, he has expressed a just point of view of the Church, but for the Muslims it clearly seemed that he was attacking the Koran and their faith. As Christians in this difficulty country, we support our people against the manipulation against the Pope, and we ask the Pope to keep somebody by him from this country to advise him because it isn’t enough to study Islam at university, one needs daily experience of it to avoid any kind of future clash. We ask to the Lord to help us in this situation, and we pray for the Pope.
It’s said that Benedict XVI might visit Israel next year, in 2007. I have already written the Pope a letter on the matter and I’ve invited him in the name of Muslims and Christians. And on 20 August he sent a special delegate to visit Gaza, and in this way he has encouraged us. We will be very happy to find anybody who wants to join us in this invitation.
It would be really wonderful to have the Pope in Gaza.

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