When we pray for peace, we pray for peace for everyone,” said the Rev. Yoel Salvaterra, who serves the Catholic community in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, after a morning in which more than 20 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip landed in the city. “Our prayers have no borders. We know we are suffering here and they are suffering there. It is just suffering.”
The parish celebrated Mass on Nov. 18 in the church bomb shelter, Father Salvaterra said, and only 15 people came to pray, about half the normal number. The community has about 150 members. “People live in fear,” he said. “Everybody is staying home.”
In Gaza, George Antone, 31, project manager for the Pontifical Mission for Palestine and father of a 6-month-old daughter, said that residents remained inside their homes because it was too risky to leave. No one knew where Israeli bombs might land next, he said.
“It can be anywhere, between houses, in government institutions, schools, universities, a football field,” he said. “The situation here is terrible. Last night it was as if we were living in hell. Every 15 minutes you could hear an explosion.”
On Nov. 19 Sami El-Yousef, regional director for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s office in Jerusalem, reported widespread destruction in Gaza and said almost all Christian institutions had sustained some damage. He said children and the elderly were paying the heaviest price.
Pope Benedict XVI condemned the escalating hostilities on Nov. 21 and called for greater efforts to promote a truce and peace negotiations. “Hatred and violence are not the solution to problems,” he said. That morning a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas was finally reached. The pope called on leaders on both sides to make “courageous decisions in favor of peace and put an end to a conflict that has negative repercussions throughout the entire Middle East region, which is already troubled by too many conflicts and is in need of peace and reconciliation.” During Israel’s aerial offensive over the Gaza Strip to neutralize rocket attacks, 169 Palestinians and at least six Israelis were killed.
One member of Antone’s Holy Family Parish in Gaza died of a heart attack during a bombing. “I don’t like the killing on either side,” he said. “I respect life.
“This is not the way in which we can find a solution. Peace never comes with blood. That is what we say to the people in church. This will lead to nothing—only a very bad scenario on both sides—and the people will pay the price.”
“Unless both sides are willing to take difficult decisions,” the stand-off will continue like this, El-Yousef said. “The cycle [of violence] gets worse and worse. This is going nowhere and just creating more hatred.” He said he hopes that new leaders in the Middle East will play a positive role in calming things down so that a lasting solution can be found. “What we have now is conflict management rather than resolution,” he said.
Antone sees the conflict between Hamas and the Israelis as not only political but also stemming from religious fanaticism on the part of both Muslims and Jews. “We Christians are not political; we call for peace and to save lives,” Antone said. After the truce, “they have to start negotiating for peace. That is the only way to solve the problem. They have to sit and speak and find a way where there will be no war for our children and the coming generations.”
Another Catholic Gazan, who asked not to be identified, said he and his family had not left their home for almost a week. “The explosions are terrible for us,” he said.
Though some people may disagree with Hamas’s tactics, “nobody can say anything against Hamas,” he said. “They are in control.”