On Saturday, October 7, Israel was struck by an attack from Hamas, a group declared as a terrorist organization by Israel, the EU and the United States, and which administers the territory of the Gaza Strip. The blow dealt to the state of Israel was violent and devastating, especially given the brutal manner used by Hamas militiamen. Those who lost their lives were mostly unarmed civilians caught off guard. This episode resulted in hundreds of Israeli casualties and the capture of more than a hundred hostages, including over a dozen American citizens. The Israeli response was not long in coming. The Jewish state responded with a series of bombings in Gaza that also resulted in hundreds of deaths, mostly civilian casualties.
In the face of this violence, the Holy City of Jerusalem watched with great apprehension during the tense hours of the aggression taking place just a few dozen kilometers to the south. Throughout the day on Saturday there were police sirens and violent bangs in the sky, as the explosion of rockets from the Gaza Strip were intercepted by the Israeli defense system known as the Iron Dome. About 1,000 pilgrims are still stranded in Jerusalem, gradually evacuating the Holy Land in cooperation with the consular authorities of their respective countries of origin.
In this ghastly climate of fear and suffering, the Franciscan shrines of the Holy Land remain a garrison of hope and faith. The friars of the Custody of the Holy Land continue their ceaseless work of prayer, which has been particularly intensified in these days to call for peace. There have been numerous appeals for peace and calls for a stop to the violence from Christian leaders, including that of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Card. Pierbattista Pizzaballa: “We need the support, to condemn all forms of violence, to isolate the violent, and to work unceasingly for a ceasefire. Because as long as guns are talking it will not be possible to hear other voices.”
The current situation has meant that the streets of the Holy City, as well as its shrines, are deserted and devoid of pilgrims. This will be a major blow to Christians in the Holy Land, whose primary sources of income depends largely upon pilgrim and tour groups. The economy in Jerusalem is still recovering from two years of closure during the pandemic.
Even so, the Custody of the Holy Land itself has prioritized caution and is asking any scheduled groups of pilgrims to postpone their pilgrimages. The Franciscans of the Holy Land have lived there for over eight hundred years and have gone through many periods of violence. Prayer, however, has never ceased, even in the darkest moments. Just in the last few hours, the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francis Patton, called for prayer in the Holy Land and fasting for peace. The President of the Holy Sepulchre, Fr. Stéphane Milovitch, also stressed the importance of praying for peace in a land now once again torn by war: “Here, Christ has risen! Today, we wanted our prayer to be particularly focused on asking for peace for this land, which is now being torn apart once again, so that everyone can live in this land in peace and in safety.”
Filippo De Grazia