In a telephone interview with ZENIT Wednesday, Bishop Shomali shared the real situation in Gaza from both a Palestinian and an Israeli perspective. He also discussed the challenges facing Christians in the territory and, in particular, the hardships being experienced by Fr. Jorge Hernandez and his parish of the Holy Family in Gaza.
Moreover, he speaks on the situation facing young people, those without work, and the difficulties facing Gaza's hospitals. He forcefully suggests what measures must be taken by government and the U.N.
ZENIT: Could you describe the actual situation taking place in Gaza, beyond the propaganda wars on both sides?
Bishop Shomali: The situation is literally deteriorating and there is a real humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Innocent lives have been lost. Until now, more than 3,500 Palestinians were wounded, 650 killed. Many of them are children and women. Two-thousand houses have been shelled, some of them having their inhabitants inside. Hospitals are overcrowded and lack the necessary medical supplies. The consequences of the drama on children are and will be dramatic. Anyway, we cannot quantify the suffering of people through numbers and figures.
We have to add that on the Israeli side, also, there are losses. More than 28 soldiers were killed in this war, one is missing. And thousands of Israeli families live in fear because of rockets launched by Hamas. The provisional stopping of Alitalia, Air France and Lufthansa flights to Tel Aviv caused many economic losses to Israel.
ZENIT: Please describe the current state of the Christian community there?
Bishop Shomali: The Christian community in Gaza is less than 1,500. Among them, 200 are Catholics. The others are mainly Orthodox and some Anglicans. We run three Catholic schools and one Anglican hospital. The Christian presence in Gaza is stronger than its percentage.
For the moment, we don’t have special news about the destruction and losses incurred by the Christian community, although we are in contact on a daily basis with its courageous parish priest, Fr. Jorge Hernandez. We know from him that the faithful did not come to Mass last Sunday. They were afraid to come. Many people are deprived of basic needs such as sleeping at night because of what they hear. Our Catholic school in Gaza, which is part of the parish compound, welcomed many homeless, who escaped the shelling of their quarter in Al Shujaieh and Al Zaitouneh. They are around 600 people living and sleeping in the school without the necessary equipment. They need food and water. Thanks to Caritas Jerusalem, it was possible to send them an urgent help.
The Argentine sisters left Gaza. The situation was too stressing for them. But the Missionaries of Charity remained and continue to take care of 30 handicapped people.
ZENIT: What are the Christian community's needs?
Bishop Shomali: Many of the young people in the community are unemployed, more than 40 percent. Those who work are needy of help because they don’t earn enough money for their survival. Christians in Gaza need more freedom under the Hamas regime. They feel they are second class citizens. Those who can leave are strong tempted to do so. It’s not easy to live there in these special circumstances. Our three Catholic schools in Gaza attract many students but are not self-sufficient from an economic point of view. The majority of teachers and students are Muslims. Many of them are poor and need scholarships.
ZENIT: What do you believe ought to be done to help--by the Church, government, or organizations?
Bishop Shomali: This coming Sunday, there will be a collection and a day of prayer for peace in all our churches in the Holy Land and Jordan. We started to collect money to send to the poor there. But the volume of destruction is great and needs governments’ grants for the reconstruction of the infrastructure.
Most needed now is an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. My appeal to all the decision makers is for an immediate cease-fire because people cannot live all the time under shelling and bombing.
ZENIT: Anything else you would like to add? Any further appeal?
Bishop Shomali: We call upon the UN to intervene to stop this vicious cycle of violence and bloodshed, to totally uplift the siege of Gaza and to urgently resume the peace process that should be based on the international law.