For a Christian …… attending Christmas Eve Mass is no big deal …… unless you happen to be in Gaza, right? I found myself sitting with maybe 100-200 Palestinians in the Holy Family Church in Gaza on December 24, 2012. My photos are here.
This simple fact struck many of my friends as very odd considering I was living in the heart of the Gaza Strip which is overwhelmingly a Muslim population with a Mosque on every corner.
There also seemed to be a subtle message of surprise that Hamas would be so tolerant of Christians celebrating their faith in their midst. One American friend asked me if I was nervous attending church in Gaza. “No!”
One of the many misconceptions some Americans have about Gaza (and I suspect with Muslim countries generally) is that Muslims are intolerant of other religions and traditions. The Western mainstream media has fallen victim to, and perpetuated, that particular stereotype I’m afraid.
There are about 1,500 Christians living in Gaza, and I witnessed no fear or threats of intimidation against any Christians while I was there.
Now that Pope Francis is visiting Bethlehem in the West Bank this weekend (May 24, 2014), Israeli authorities have agreed to let about 650 Palestinian Christians out of Gaza (through the Erez border crossing in the north) to travel to Bethlehem for this very special occasion.
Mapquest estimates this trip is about 70 miles and should take about 1 hour and 40 minutes. The reality I suspect is that it took weeks of administrative hoopla to get permission from the Israeli authorities, and then it took hours waiting at the Erez checkpoint, and then it took several more hours by armed convoy traveling by bus to Bethlehem.
One might think this news proves that Israel is a benevolent Occupier, until one reads that only people over the age of 35 are allowed to travel and many more requests were rejected. If nothing else, this treatment should convince the editors at The New York Times that Israel occupies Gaza, a fact the paper of record for the USA won’t admit.
So the Palestinians in Gaza have recorded a brief message to Pope Francis.
I hope the Pope’s visit will shine an international light on the Middle East and on the injustices of the occupation.