Christian by name and by nature

Morning Star Online, Sunday 10 May 2009

Father Manuel Musallam, the Catholic priest in Gaza, has finally retired at 71. His will be a hard act to follow.

Many thought that ill health had forced Musallam to hang up his cassock last year, but he returned to the fray to be with his community during its darkest hour when Israel, with a nod and a wink from the US and the EU, unleashed its lethal assault intended to finally crush the isolated and half-starved Gazans.

I was privileged to meet the crusty old churchman in 2007, when things in Gaza were already unbearable after 18 months of blockade and savage sanctions.

For nine years, Musallam had been unable to leave the strip to see his family in the West Bank for fear that the Israelis would block his return and leave his church and school without a priest. We were the first visitors from the outside world he had seen for many months.

Musallam has frequently spoken out about the torment and hardship inflicted on the Gazan people. He has said in plain language what other churchmen – and politicians and diplomats – are afraid to.

He told reporters that, after 14 years as the parish priest, he had seen the humanitarian situation get drastically worse. And he warned that the people were becoming more aggressive. “There is a lot more hate towards the situation they are in – especially among the young.”

Musallam was also greatly troubled by the exodus of Christians to escape the never-ending Israeli oppression and seek a better life elsewhere, reflecting the worry expressed by many others that Christendom is allowing itself to be “religiously cleansed” from the Holy Land with scarcely a murmur of protest.

He has seen Gaza’s Christian contingent dwindle to just 5,000 souls out of a tight-packed population of 1.5 million.

Musallam also speaks with anguish of the 1,400 Gazans killed in the latest blitz, the many thousands left homeless and the hundreds of thousands without running water, sanitation, a proper diet or medical care – thanks to the already overburdened infrastructure having been blasted to smithereens by US-supplied weaponry and explosives.

In January, at the height of Israel’s killing spree, Fr Manuel sent this message from the smoking ruins to anyone who would listen.

“Our people in Gaza … eat but remain hungry, they cry, but no-one wipes their tears. There is no water, no electricity, no food, only terror and blockade … Our children are living in a state of trauma and fear. They are sick from it and for other reasons such as malnutrition, poverty and the cold … The hospitals did not have basic first aid before the war and now thousands of wounded and sick are pouring in and they are performing operations in the corridors. The situation is frightening and sad.”

A few days later, he wrote: “Hundreds of people have been killed and many more injured in the Israeli invasion. Our people have endured the bombing of their homes, their crops have been destroyed, they have lost everything and many are now homeless.

“We have endured phosphorus bombs which have caused horrific burns, mainly to civilians. Like the early Christians our people are living through a time of great persecution, a persecution which we must record for future generations as a statement of their faith, hope and love.”

Yet the leaders of the West turned their backs while their “ally,” with whom they claim to share so many values, committed these and other atrocities. It was their duty to intervene but they didn’t. As if this infamy weren’t enough, humanitarian aid and reconstruction materials for Gaza are still obstructed by Israel and the international community is too spineless to ensure that they flow.

Musallam’s Catholic school in Gaza is highly regarded by Muslim families and many send their children there.

The only official tribute I’ve seen to Musallam says that he “has done great work over the many years he has been in Gaza where he has given a lot to support the Christian community and many others.”

Is that it? Is that all the church can find to say about one of its most remarkable representatives, who has served his God and community for many perilous years in the world’s most notorious hell-hole?

Let us hope the Pope, during his trip to the holy land this week, manages to find time between visits to the Yad Vashem memorial and the Wailing Wall and hob-nobbing with the great and good of the zionist regime, to say hello to Musallam and acknowledge the dedication and courage of this extraordinary man.

The Vatican describes the Pope’s visit as a pilgrimage, which usually suggests a journey of high purpose and moral significance. Will his holiness be joining the queue of Palestinians at the Bethlehem crossing into Jerusalem and waiting in line for the three humiliating hours it often takes before being allowed to shuffle through the steel-barred cattle pens to start a full day’s work?

He has decided to skip Gaza so he will miss the state-of-the-art dehumanisation process at the Erez crossing and the experience of being forced to strip to his underwear like so many others.

It’s a shame he won’t see Gaza. He’d weep like he has never wept before. Then at least he would have had something morally significant to say to Israel’s dignitaries.

As for Musallam, I doubt if his God has finished with him just yet. There’s a mountain of work to be done and good men are hard to find.

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