As we approach the Erez crossing on the Israeli side of the border with the Palestinian territory of Gaza, it suddenly occurs to me that I have already grown familiar with the routine. The 1.5 hour drive from IOCC’s offices in East Jerusalem no longer requires a road map and even the gas stations or coffee shops along the route have grown familiar.
The entry process through the modern, high-tech Erez crossing terminal and security also seems routine, and I need to pause and remind myself of the daily reality for the 1.5 million Palestinians on the other side of this crossing – that they are effectively prisoners in a small strip of land some 5 miles wide and 25 miles in length along the scenic Mediterranean coast. Today, they remain isolated, subjected to trauma and deprived of much of what we take for granted in our own daily lives – the cumulative result of over 60 years of continuing political, economic, social, religious and military conflict and turmoil on both sides of this border. A lasting peace continues to elude this complex and Holy land where the world’s great monotheistic religions – all «People of the Book» converge.
But today, as always, there are small differences. As I enter the terminal and hand my passport and ID to the border control police, I am asked the customary questions regarding the purpose of my entry to Gaza. As always, I respond that I work with IOCC and that I will be meeting with and working with the Orthodox Christian Church in Gaza, as well as His Eminence Archbishop Alexios of Tiberius (who is based in Gaza) in our efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable families. The border agent listens to my response and questions: «A Christian Church in Gaza?» I politely respond, «Yes, there is a historic Orthodox Christian Church in Gaza, although it now numbers only 3,000 persons.» The border agent follow up with: «How long has the Church been in Gaza?» My response, «Approximately 2,000 years.» The border agent gives me a look of some surprise, but then stamps my passport and we proceed through the remaining doors and security, finally exiting into the sunshine for the 1/4 mile walk down the road to where our Gazan friends are waiting. But it seems that, at least for the near-term, no amount of response and explanation to questions from these same border police will ensure their freedom to leave this small strip of land.
Waiting for us as usual is George, a member of the Orthodox faithful in Gaza. George studied and lived in northern Greece for some years before returning home to Gaza. He now owns a small business and volunteers to assist His Eminence and the ministry of the Church with driving and other tasks. Father Amfilochios, the young Orthodox priest who serves in Gaza together with His Eminence Archbishop Alexios, is also there to greet us. Even though we have become close friends over the past months, I am always humbled by the lives of dedicated Christian service that these men of God exemplify.
Friday passes by quickly as I meet with the IOCC field officers in Gaza – Khalil and Mousa – and we discuss the business and tasks related to IOCC’s ongoing efforts to assist the most vulnerable and needy Gaza families. A distribution of food and non-food items – made from the courtyard of the Church and monastery is being finalized today – and many of the beneficiaries are expressing their gratitude to His Eminence and the IOCC field officers. The Church is located in the oldest section of Gaza City called «Az Zaitoun» which is also now one of the poorest areas. More than 500 needy families have received assistance today through the partnership of IOCC and the Orthodox Church in Gaza.
Saturday brings more meetings and a visit to nearby «Beit Hanoun» where another distribution of food and hygiene materials for poor Gaza families is accomplished by IOCC staff and our partners.
This is followed by a visit to the Orthodox School and a discussion with the dedicated directors, teachers and students of the school.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate School of Gaza serves more than 500 Christian and Muslim students from grades K-9. Built in 2000, the school is regarded as one of the best in Gaza, and is also one of the very few schools that integrates male and female students. As I have never developed my own ability at languages, I am humbled by the fact that Arabic, French and English are part of the curriculum for students starting at the Kindergarten level.
The school hopes to raise the necessary funds to construct a third floor, which will allow them to accept more students and also provide quality education for the higher grades of 10-12. As we depart, we pass through a modern science laboratory which is completely prepared for students, but cannot be utilized until science teaching equipment and materials are allowed to enter Gaza.
Saturday evening brings the start of the most significant and meaningful part of my time in Gaza during this visit, as we join His Eminence, Father Amfilochios and the faithful for worship – first with Vespers, and soon to be followed by Sunday morning Liturgy. All of this is taking place in the Church of Saint Porphyrios, who brought Christianity to this then pagan city during his ministry as Bishop of Gaza from 395-420 AD. Entering the ancient church, which was originally constructed in 406 AD and is currently 6-10 feet below street level, we venerate the relics of the Saint, which are placed beneath his icon. A Palestinian friend name Gabriel who is based in Jerusalem «wrote» the icon of the Saint. It is a beautiful example of his work which often combines Byzantine and Russian styles.
For Dirk‘s complete Gaza diary go to ioccingaza.blogspot.com.
Help IOCC speed relief to families who have been caught in this conflict. Visit www.iocc.org , call IOCC toll free at 1-877-803-4622, or mail a check or money order payable to «IOCC» and write «Middle East Relief» in the memo line to: IOCC, P.O. Box 630225, Baltimore, Md. 21263-0225.
IOCC, founded in 1992 as the official humanitarian aid agency of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA), has implemented over $300 million in relief and development programs in more than 33 countries around the world.
Media: Contact Amal Morcos at 410-243-9820 or (cell) 443-823-3489.
From the 29th March / 11th April to 6th / 19th April 2009
Time: Summer time:
Saturday of Lazarus: The Vesper 2p.m 3p.m
Palm Sunday: The Holy Liturgy 7a.m 8a.m
Palm Sunday: Service of the Bridegroom 5.15p.m 6.15p.m
Holy Monday: Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified 8a.m 9a.m
Gifts at the Holy Calvary
Holy Monday: Service of the Bridegroom 5.15p.m 6.15p.m
Holy Tuesday: Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified 8a.m 9a.m
Gifts at the Holy Calvary
Holy Tuesday: Service of the Bridegroom 5.15p.m 6.15p.m
Holy Wednesday: Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified 8a.m 9a.m
Gifts at the Holy Calvary
Holy Thursday: Holy Liturgy of St.Vasilios 5.30a.m 6.30a.m
at the Cathedral of St.James
Holy Thursday: The washing of the feet 8p.m 9p.m
Holy Thursday: Service of the Passions 5.15p.m 6.15p.m
Holy Friday: Great Hours 9a.m 10a.m
at the Holy Calvary
Holy Friday: The Vesper 2p.m 3p.m
Holy Friday: Service of the Burial 8p.m 9p.m
Holy Saturday: Ceremony of the Holy Fire 12midday 1p.m
Holy Saturday: Resurrection Ceremony 11p.m 12midnight
Easter Sunday: Second Resurrection 12midday 1p.m