On Friday I went with a friend to the Eastern Orthodox Church in the Old City of Gaza, to help make palm crosses for Palm Sunday which, for them, is tomorrow.
The place was a hive of activity, with many young people busily making crosses and other decorations from palm fronds, under the tutelage of the older members of the community.
One of the senior members told me that there are about 2,500 Christians in Gaza, the majority of whom are Orthodox I asked if their numbers were increasing, and he said no, they are diminishing.
“Most send their children outside after they finish secondary school,” he told me. “Those that can afford it, anyway. It is not because they are afraid of the government, but because there is no work. If the economic conditions improve, many of them will return because they are Palestinians, and for every Palestinian, living in Palestine is very important to them.”
He said that they have been living peacefully with Muslims for thousands of years, and they have no problems between them, and love them like brothers.
“It is different from Egypt,” he said, referring to recent clashes between Christians and Muslims there.
“We have a good relationship between the leaders of our churches and the leaders of the political parties and the Islamic leaders,” he continued. “We are free to follow our traditions, they respect us and we respect them. Members of the Hamas government come to visit us during our feasts,” he added.
He said the Gaza Orthodox community are nearly all refugees. “Israel didn’t distinguish between Christians and Muslims, they drove out all Palestinians regardless of their religion.”
“Before the Second Intifada there were more than 5,000 Christians in Gaza, but after it, many Christians left, not because of Hamas, but because of the difficult situation here,” he went on. “We need to keep our children in Gaza, we don’t want them all to go, so we try to make this place fun, a place where the young people can come and escape the pressures of daily life and relax.”
It was clear that many found it exactly that – there were spontaneous outbursts of singing, a lot of laughing, and much teasing and playfulness.
How do you keep the traditions alive? I asked.
“By practising them,” he replied. “This today is actually ‘Sunday’ School – we have two groups, one in the morning for 5-12 year olds, and one in the afternoon for 13-18 year olds. On Sunday we will all celebrate Palm Sunday, which marks the beginning of our Holy Week. On Thursday we will celebrate the crucifixion, on Friday Jesus being taken to the tomb, and on Sunday, his resurrection. You are welcome to come.”
It’s a date!