Our day started with a tour in Gaza that focused on the Christian sites. We first visited a Christian elementary school called Al Manara - which means the light house. The school targets the poor and least privileged in their society. They headmaster and the teachers - most of them are members of the church - were so happy for our visit, specially since they seldom receive visits. The school headmaster shared with us about some of the difficulties they face ministering in such an environment (like the occasional complains of some of the parents on how the 6 years old girls and boys are sitting next to each others). It was an honor to visit the school and pray with some of the teachers and the head master.
We then visited the Orthodox church in Gaza and had a very special time with Bishop Alexios, who is Greek but speaks fluent Arabic. He greeted us in the monastery and shared with us first about the church and the situation in Gaza. He stressed that peace is first and foremost a personal thing. We cannot give what we do not have, he said. First we get a personal peace with God and then we can extend it to others. He said that our hope for peace is not in peace treaties, and does not depend on which political party is in control. Peace is a personal thing and each one must start with him/herself.
The Bishop then explained to us the history of Christianity in Gaza. The church there is one of the oldest in the world. It was built in 402 AD by St. Porphyrius and is called after him, and some parts from the first building, including a big baptismal rock, are still part of the current church. (There is another church in that was built in Gaza in 407 AD, but it was turned to a mosque when Islam came to Palestine in the 7th century). According to tradition, the first bishop of Gaza is none other than Philemon, the same person to whom Paul sent the letter which is part of the Bible today! It was really special to visit the church and be in a place of such a long and rich tradition. It was even more special to sing there "Barik Biladi" which means Bless my country Lord!
The room where we met with the bishop was decorated with many icons for saints, a picture of the Patriarch, and pictures of previous bishops. There was also a picture of the previous leader Arafat, and many pictures of President Abbas shaking hands with the Orthodox Patriarch and other priests. Noticeably missing was any picture of a meeting with Hamas officials. I asked the bishop about the situation and relationship with Hamas. He said it is well and that they exchange visits. In the room there was also the Umarite Covenant (the treaty Muslims made with Christians when they first invaded Palestine in the 7th century, which explained the rights of Christians). The bishop then told me that when Hamas came to power, he presented a copy to them as gift, to remind them that Christians are the hosts here and that we have been here before Islam came!
Outside the church we visited the tomb of Rami Ayyad, a Palestinian Christian from Gaza who was killed by radical Muslim extremists few years ago. It was a strong and powerful reminder of the hard situation that Christians are facing here. Since Hamas came to power things have been very difficult for Christians. All that they enjoyed in the times of Arafat and the PNA was taken from them. For example - and even though this is a minor thing - in the Christmas season there is no more a Christmas tree in the middle of Gaza, no scouts are allowed to march in the streets to celebrate Christmas, and stores are not even allowed to sell Christmas decorations. This speaks a lot about the nature of Hamas's rule in Gaza.
Gaza is under a very strong siege, or as the taxi driver referred to it: Gaza central prison. It is indeed a big prison. Israel controls one side, and Egypt the others. And then there are the tunnels of course. All the tunnels are now controlled by Hamas, and everything that comes in is taxed! In fact, we were told that Hamas taxes everything here, since they have to survive! They are applying a very strict regime. So you have the siege from Israel from the outside, and the strict regime of Hamas from the inside - and so you can understand why this is one of the most difficult and depressing places in the world!
We then took a nice walk on the beach - it was really refreshing. You see coming from Bethlehem we loved the sea! It was nice to walk and take pictures of the sea, and a good preparation for our evening service in the church. Before the service we had a good time of prayer from the roof of the Baptist Church in Gaza, from which you can have a very good view of Gaza city.
The church was full for the service. We sang and shared testimonies and I preached from Luke 13 about the women with a disabling spirit. For years she walked with hear back bent over and facing the ground. Yet Jesus noticed her - and he sees inside each one of us. No one is forgotten. No one is forsaken. No one is neglected. This was in fact the theme of the service. The song they loved the most was "Rabbuna La Yansana" which means "God will never forget us". The people of Gaza have strong faith, but they looked weary and tired. They were very happy and excited for our visit. The last time the choir sang in Gaza was in 1995 (I was a member back then, my sister Rana was the leader). Since 1995, this is the first they have such an event! So you can sense how much they appreciated our presence with them more than anything else, and they expressed this to us after the service in the church and over dinner.
Most of the young people we spoke with after the service - and there were plenty of them - told us that they wish they could leave Gaza to Bethlehem, even if for a short visit. It is sad, and I wish that they would rather stay and keep a Christian presence that is deeply needed there, but I also understand why they wish to leave. It is hard living in a siege. It is harder to live in this siege as a minority in a society that can occasional be very hostile against you! They said that they wish they could at least leave Gaza occasionally and visit Bethlehem and Ramallah and come to Gaza - at least they would have a breather!
The next day we headed to Erez crossing point to leave, only to discover that our leaving permit are valid for one specific day and not over a period. In other words, we are allowed to enter Gaza in one specific day and we must leave Gaza in one specific day as well! We pleaded with them, made many phone calls, and the college made a lot of calls as well. After 4 hours and a half of waiting in the cold we were told that all our efforts failed and so we had to come back the next day. I cannot understand the rational behind this stupid law! The laws of entering and leaving Gaza are the most complicated rules I have ever seen. It is very, very hard to enter and leave from Gaza! Anyways, we did not let what happened ruin the experience for us, and we used some of the waiting time to sing! The people crossing the boarder seemed to enjoy the music, though it was strange for them to hear the Christian words!
The next we left. First we went through a Hamas checkpoint, were they registered our names. Then we went to the Fatah checkpoint, which coordinates and the checks with the Israelis about every traveler before letting us go through to the Israeli point. There we went through a very long and complicated search as if we were in an airport and even worst! They have very advanced technology and they also opened the bags and searched them piece by piece.
I am grateful for this opportunity. Gaza is a beautiful place, and it was completely safe inside (even safe to take a walk at 10 pm with girls of the church and choir). As I reflect on these four days I cannot but feel sorry for the people of Gaza. It is a special place and the people we met are quality people! But the situation inside is miserable, and it does not look like it is going to become any better soon.
Maybe the best insight I had this trip came from the taxi driver. He is old enough to have lived the Israeli occupation, the rule of the Palestinian National Authority and Fatah, and now Hamas. He said that Israel only cares for her security, Fatah was corrupt and did not care for the people, and Hamas is applying strict rules and taxing everyone so as to survive. He then said that with the three of them, one thing did not change: the loser is always the people of Gaza.