Christians 'desperate to leave Gaza'

|PIC1|On the eve of the Pope’s visit to the Middle East, Gaza’s only Catholic priest has given a damning indictment of the situation facing the people in the beleaguered Palestinian territory – especially Christians.

Speaking on Thursday, after 14 years as a parish priest, Monsignor Manuel Musallam told Aid to the Church in Need that the humanitarian situation had declined drastically during his time there.

Thanking ACN for its emergency aid given during a wave of violence in Gaza in January, he said his poverty-stricken community felt strengthened by the support from outside.

But in his interview with the Catholic charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, he stressed that Gaza’s 5,000-strong Christian community was increasingly desperate to leave the region in search of a better future abroad.

His comments will underline the call to do more to arrest the Christian exodus from the Middle East, which is expected to be a major theme of Pope Benedict XVI’s week-long visit to Jordan, Israel and the West Bank, due to start on May 8.

Mgr Musallam emphasised the impact of January’s three-week Israeli military campaign against Gaza, which left more than 1,100 dead, 400,000 people without running water and thousands of homes damaged and destroyed. Thirteen Israelis died in rocket attacks from Gaza.

He said that the conflict was just part of a cycle of decline spanning his 14 years as parish priest in Gaza.

The Gaza Strip’s population of 1.5 million – half of whom are children – have faced an increasingly serious humanitarian disaster according to the United Nations and leading aid agencies.

Mgr Musallam said: “The destruction has become deeper and deeper. Things are getting worse and worse. Many, many families are suffering.

“People cannot receive electricity all the time because there is a lack of fuel to run the generators. There is a shortage of clean water, sanity is poor. Education and medical care is also not good.

|QUOTE|“Our precious trees have been uprooted. Our buildings have been destroyed. Our streets have been destroyed. Our land has been burnt by bombs and so we cannot produce anything. We are just consumers now. The machines and cars are old. Everything needs to be renewed.”

He underlined the effect of the suffering on the people’s psyche. He said: “The people are more aggressive. There is a lot more hate towards the situation they are in – especially among the young.”

But he said the £17,850 given by ACN as an emergency payment in early January had shown people “another way” towards hope.

The aid, administered by Mgr Musallam himself, was used to provide essential food and other supplies to some of the neediest families in Gaza City.

“We admire very much the solidarity shown towards the people of this land. The friendship between Christians elsewhere in the world and here is very strong. We hope this link will continue for a long time," he said.

“The support and love shown to the people of Palestine will continue to encourage them to bear witness to Christ. We hope this will encourage them not to emigrate.”

Mgr Musallam, 71, who will join family and friends in retirement in the West Bank town of Ramallah, said he had great confidence in Fr George Hermandes, a native of Argentina, who takes over as parish priest of Gaza City.

“I am leaving this place forever. I am not anxious or sad. I have completed my job and my successor is in place.”

Fr Humam Khzouz, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the diocese that covers Gaza, paid tribute to Mgr Musallam and his ministry in Gaza.

He said “Fr Musallam has done great work over the many years he has been in Gaza where he has given a lot to support the Christian community and many others.”