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As Holy Land war rages, Christians cry to God for help

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Mary (centre) with her husband Henry and daughter Nahil joined other Australian Palestinians at Holy Name of Mary Church in Rydalmere, for a Mass to pray for peace in their homeland on 18 October. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Mary (centre) with her husband Henry and daughter Nahil joined other Australian Palestinians at Holy Name of Mary Church in Rydalmere, for a Mass to pray for peace in their homeland on 18 October. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Sydney’s Christian Palestinians are hurt, frustrated and afraid.

The horrors in their homeland since the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October ruptured decades-old wounds that had hardly begun to heal.

They’re mourning and fearful for loved ones in their homeland, for the future of a Christian presence in the Middle East, and for their children here growing up in the shadow of a conflict they can’t fully escape.

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Mary Dabit was born in Rimal, a suburb in Gaza, in her parents’ home in December 1956 in the middle of war. “The midwife came to my house under fire and delivered me,” she said.

The house was badly damaged when a neighbour’s home was bombed in the 2014 Israel-Palestine war. This time a tower block nearby was destroyed. No one knows if it still stands or what condition it is in.

But Mrs Dabit is more worried about her brother and sister-in-law, both in their 80s, who fled the house just in time and stayed in various relatives’ houses before seeking refuge in a church.

“Now they are told they should leave and go south—to where?” she asks.

“It’s a desert, there is nothing there. And how will they go there with no food and no water? Who will help them? Now even a hospital has been bombed. We don’t know what to do. That is our problem—we are Palestinian. There is no place for the Palestinians.”

Although they are Orthodox Christians, Mary with her husband Henry and daughter Nahil joined other Australian Palestinians and their friends, plus regular parishioners at Holy Name of Mary Church in Rydalmere, on 18 October for a Mass to pray for peace in their homeland.

Wearing black and white-checkered keffiyehs and holding icons and crosses they prayed and sang hymns, then gathered outside afterwards to thank parish administrator Fr Chadi Ibrahim SDB.

They had awoken to news of an explosion at Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City, killing an estimated 300 people, with both Israel and Hamas denying responsibility. Investigators are still attempting to discern whether Israel or Hamas was responsible for the blast.

Since then another refugee shelter, an administration building at St Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church, was hit and lives lost.

Holy Name of Mary parish administrator Fr Chadi Ibrahim SDB. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Holy Name of Mary parish administrator Fr Chadi Ibrahim SDB. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

With electricity, fuel, water and food cut off to Gaza, communication with loved ones was brief and sporadic. It could take many attempts to get through on the phone, and people were relying on relatives and word-of-mouth to pass on the short messages, photos or social media posts they received as proof of life.

Anxious about the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza and the potential for a larger war, worried about their friends and family under fire, and angry at the injustice of civilian deaths, several of the massgoers told The Catholic Weekly that this is the latest chapter in a story of generations of dispossession and trauma.

They say their perspective has not been reflected in the media or statements of most Australian and international political leaders, in a country where they might have expected to find more compassion for innocent victims of this latest war on both sides of the Gaza wall.

Mrs Dabit’s husband Henry was born in Jaffa before the great displacement of populations Palestinians refer to as the “Nakba” in 1948 amid the creation of the state of Israel and the Arab-Israeli War.

“My family went to Ramallah and sheltered in churches there and then went to Jericho for six months,” he explained.

From there they emigrated to Jordan where his father found work as an electrician.
By that time he was one year old, his brother a toddler, and his mother was expecting her third child.

“In Jordan, sometimes they treated us well, sometimes they treated us badly,” Mr Dabit said.

“Because of that we had to find another life somewhere else. I studied in Lebanon, I worked in Abu Dhabi, I married, and then I came here.

“I have suffered all these years. I am not in my country, and we still suffer here.

“I can’t have the word ‘Palestine’ on my passport, our leaders here don’t recognise it. And today everyone says Hamas are terrorists and I will also say that, but what about [Israeli paramilitary groups] Irgun and Haganah?”

Nahil Chidiac, Mr and Mrs Dabit’s daughter, came to Australia with them when she was three years old.

She said she has often felt like an outcast growing up because of her Palestinian heritage and is worried about the effect this war will have on her four young children.

Australian Palestinians attend Mass to pray for peace in their homeland at Holy Name of Mary Church in Rydalmere, on 18 October. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Australian Palestinians attend Mass to pray for peace in their homeland at Holy Name of Mary Church in Rydalmere, on 18 October. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“I was born in the Emirates—we weren’t allowed to visit Gaza,” she said.

“But because of my parents and the history we have, every time a war breaks out, it somehow was always made out to be our fault.

“Because I’m Arab and I’m Palestinian I have had the biggest cross against me. People assumed I was Muslim or demanded answers about what was happening. I have spent my entire life explaining and justifying myself. As a kid I didn’t understand everything going on in the world and the impact of it. But the prejudice from others was constant.

“Now I’m terrified for my kids. I’m worried about what their future is going to look like. I worry about what is said to them in the classroom and on the playground. I’ve enrolled them into Catholic schools and like-minded environments to minimise the kind of prejudice towards them that I experienced when wars broke out or 9/11 happened.

“My husband and I try to educate them on history and current situations so they are not caught by surprise and can be confident to speak up and defend themselves but I also hope they can keep their innocence.”

Suzan Wahhab, president of Christian Palestinians of Australia, said the recent weeks have re-traumatised the Palestinian diaspora and that she had asked a number of priests to host a prayer gathering for them before Fr Ibrahim agreed.

“I think they are afraid to hold prayers for Palestine,” she said.

“We know the Jewish people are suffering as well and we want peace for everyone but no one is saying ‘let’s pray for Palestine’, even though they are seeing on TV people dying, whole suburbs destroyed, lives destroyed, no food, no water, electricity or fuel allowed in to them.

“The attitude of many seems to be that if you are Palestinian, you are a terrorist, and people tell us this. We feel we don’t belong to this country. We don’t feel welcome here.”

At the Mass Fr Ibrahim urged those gathered to seek and pray for peace not only in the world but in their daily lives.

“Here more than 14,000 kilometres from the Holy Land we are here to pray with symbols of Palestine but while that is beautiful, it is not enough,” he said.

“We must continue to pray and to have this compassion with our brothers and sisters who are suffering a crazy war, making every day a small sacrifice and offering it for peace. That will make a difference.”

Mary Wahhab, who grew up in the West Bank city Ramallah, said that “all we have at the moment is hope and prayer. This is what we need to cling to and it’s the least we can do is to pray for all of the innocent people who are caught up in this war and especially the children.”

“Only prayer and hope and believing in Jesus is what’s going to give us the comfort we all need.”

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