The Argentine priest who managed to enter Gaza: the catastrophe, the call of the Pope and a situation that surprised him

Rome.- Explosions are heard, the noise of drones is constant, war continues to sow destruction and death. but father gabriel romanelli Is happy. After seven months and ten days of frustration of not being able to be with his people, on Thursday This Argentine priest of the Institute of the Incarnate Word (IVE) finally achieved his only and great objective since October 7: to return to the Church of the Holy Family in Gaza City, Of which he has been the parish priest since 2019.

The Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, in fact, caught Romanelli, 54, outside Gaza, by surprise. After traveling to Rome for the consistory at which Francis appointed the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, a cardinal, he returned to Bethlehem, where he awaited the cure of the nuns who had been living with him in Gaza. That delay caused him to remain out of his parish for the first seven months of the worst war the Gaza Strip had ever seen.

Father Romanelli on arrival at his church in GazaCourtesy of Gabriele Romanelli

After months of negotiations, they obtained permission to re-enter from the Israel Defense Forces, accompanied by a delegation led by Patriarch Pizzaballa. The highest Catholic authority in the region, last Thursday, and the Knights of the Order of Malta who brought humanitarian aid.

“The chancellor made a pastoral visit that he had been waiting for for a long time and I stopped by and brought additional support: now we are three Argentines in Gaza,” came to know Nation Father Romanelli. He also, in fact, received permission to enter Gaza from the father carlos ferreroIVE senior in the Middle East, 67 years old, and sister Maria Maravillas, 34, both from Buenos Aires. In a video call, Romanelli and the other two Argentines were surprised by his smile and enthusiasm despite entering hell.

Romanelli returned with two other Argentines, Father Carlos Ferrero and Sister María Maravillas.

However, he could not give details of the operation to enter Gaza Strip. Father Romanelli was able to describe what he found upon entering the enclave, While Israel’s retaliation, which seeks to eliminate the Hamas terrorist group responsible for the brutal attack on October 7, has not yet ended and, according to Palestinian figures, has caused terrible destruction and at least 35,000 deaths.

,The city is in pieces… Wherever you looked there was very little left standing. There is no corner of the city that is healthy, There are entire neighborhoods that are missing And most of the houses have been destroyed… Still, you can see people who removed the debris and are living among the destroyed houses. It is estimated that at least half a million people are in Gaza City,” said the priest from Buenos Aires, who has lived in the Middle East for more than 25 years and speaks and writes Arabic fluently.

One of the first crowds after returning to GazaCourtesy of Gabriele Romanelli

The parish property which he was eventually able to return, which had been left in the hands of his second, father Joseph of Egypt, Since the beginning of the war it became a refuge for the Gaza Strip’s Christian minority and many Muslim neighbors., The property includes a primary and middle school, another three-storey building, a kindergarten, another multipurpose room and the church, the only Catholic one in the enclave.

“Paradoxically, I liked the parish,” he said. “In Gaza we were 1,017 Christians, majority Orthodox, a hundred Catholics And at first we gave shelter to 700 people, And now at 500. In the seven months of the war, 36 Christians were killed, 20 in bombings and the rest due to lack of medicine and medical care; And 240 who may have or had dual passports have moved abroad. But the majority wants to stay: they have no safe place anywhere in the strip,” Romanelli stressed.

People from their church and other refugees update them Courtesy of Gabriele Romanelli

To accommodate 500 people in the parish – who come every day, from time to time, at night, Pope Francis called to ask how everything was going and gave a message of consolation– Of course it had to be fixed. Families began living in school classrooms and other places on the property where there were no vacant corners. And to co-exist they organized themselves into commissions for children, security, water, food.

As “thanks to God and the wisdom of the elders”, the church was built right on a spring and had a cistern beneath it, they were never short of water. Since it is not potable, they have a purification system, which, however, does not prevent diseases caused by epidemics.

“The city is very destroyed, there are mountains of garbage everywhere, Sewers do not burst in our area because we are in a very high altitude area. This is the old part of Gaza City, but in other parts the sewers have burst… and it smells like vomit outside,” said the Villa Luoro-born priest.

Exterior of the Romanelli Church in GazaCourtesy of Gabriele Romanelli

To get food, and given the difficulties in getting trucks with goods and humanitarian aid to enter the strip, where international organizations condemn the risks of famine, the parish tries to get food “Wherever and at any cost.”

“It is cooked three times a week for everyone. Roti is made the next day. And a system of pipes was installed inside the bread oven to heat the water and buckets were numbered according to the number of classrooms, identifying families and having access to hot water to be able to bathe in camp style. Done,” Romanelli explained. “Except now, since the weather is better, some people use the hose to cure themselves,” he said.

Despite the war, in the parish – where Sisters Pilar and Socorro, twin sisters from Peru, and three nuns of Mother Teresa, who have a structure for disabled children and elderly adults on the same property – life goes on. “We give speeches, there are spiritual activities, we pray, we sing, we play, we teach children and now I want to start classes again,” Romanelli assured, with bright eyes and lots of energy.

Romanelli with members of the Christian community in his church Courtesy of Gabriele Romanelli

Amidst the immense joy of being able to return to embrace his people after seven months of helplessness, Romanelli did not hide his surprise at the general humor.

“This is something that the Patriarch said, who visited all the sick and had a meeting with adults, who commented that even though the situation is very bad in the West Bank –More than 100,000 people have lost their jobs in recent months -, It was surprising that in this community I saw no anger but peaceful people. And people say ‘Well, we’re in God’s hands, what can we do?’ It was a great consolation to me“, He said.

The grounds of Gaza’s only Catholic church include a structure for disabled children run by the Sisters of Mother Teresa Courtesy of Gabriele Romanelli

“I am neither frightened, nor distressed, nor anything at all; certainly, I am not unconscious, I know how dangerous it is to live here, I am talking and drones are being heard continuously, explosions are being heard because operations are going on in Jabaliya, which is about three kilometers away, but war toughens you Too“He added.

“The people are in the place of war, this is not the first war that has happened, although it has no parallel, Never seen anything like it, But There is a peace in it that is difficult even for us to understand., But it is so and it also brings a lot of happiness. On the other hand, they are very grateful to be here, they know that the city is in ruins and the war is active and although there are some moments of peace, suddenly everything changes and you can’t go for several days.”

Do you see any way out of the war? He commented, “There is always a way out: every storm ends, every rain stops, wars always stop and must stop at some point.” And he concluded: “I think everyone, Israeli society, Palestinian society, is ready for this to end. They’re all tired now. It’s complicated, but not impossible.”

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