Gaza Christians have mixed feelings about Pope's visit

Christians in the Gaza Strip are having mixed feelings about Pope Benedict XVI and his upcoming visit to Israel.

While some are angry that the Pope will not be visiting Gaza on his visit, others are dubious that his visit to the region will change anything.

Christians in Gaza have felt the effects of an Israeli blockade on the region since Islamist group Hamas took over the territory in 2007. Earlier this year Gaza was the scene of a short but intense military campaign by Israel in response to Hamas rocket attacks.

There is only one Catholic church in Gaza, which has around 200 members. The leader of the church, Father Manuel Mussalem, said, "We will ask him [the Pope] why he came, what he intends on saying to the Christians, the Jews, the Muslims and why he isn't coming to Gaza," reports AFP.

"We'll tell him that this is not the right moment to come and visit the holy places, while Jerusalem is occupied."

Around 2,500 Christians live in Gaza amongst a population of 1.5 million Muslims. Dozens of Christians left the territory of Gaza following the rise to power of Hamas in the area. Those that remain have said the Pope, who wants to encourage believers to stay in the Holy Land, should have visited Gaza.

Rania Mikhail, 32, who studies English at the Holy Family School, said, "We would have liked it if he came here. We are happy that he is coming to Palestine, but what can he do for us?

"We want him to do something for Gaza, not only for the Christians, but also for the Muslims who are living in this prison [Gaza]. We would have liked him to come to Gaza since no one pays attention to what happens to us.”

"When [Pope] Benedict announced in early March that he would visit the Holy Land in May to pray ‘for the precious gift of unity and peace for the Middle East and for all of humanity’, many Gaza Christians were not pleased … They urged the pontiff to shun Israel in protest at its December-January onslaught on impoverished Gaza that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians."

Bassam Shahtoot, a member of the Nazareth Roman Catholic parish council, said, "We had mixed feelings at first about the visit … We want the Pope to come, but the timing is problematic because of the Gaza war where many Palestinians were killed."

He added that "some people are using this visit politically" to improve the image of Israel.

Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Vatican custodian of the holy sites, spoke in favour of the Pope’s visit. He said, "In spite of all the problems, it's important to come and to encourage … This visit is aimed first and foremost at encouraging them [Christians] to remain in this country."

Although the Pope will not be visiting Gaza, the Israeli government has pledged to provide exit permits so that people can get past the blockade and attend events and masses with the Pope.

Student Rania Mikhail said, "If his [the Pope’s] sermons end up changing things for us, we will be very happy … But if not, then this visit will have been in vain."