IOCC: Gaza’s Orthodox Community Struggles to Endure
International Orthodox Christian Charities’ (IOCC) Jerusalem/West Bank Representative Dirk Lackovic-van Gorp travels to Gaza regularly overseeing IOCC’s distributions of food, blankets and hygiene supplies to 6,000 vulnerable families throughout Gaza. Here is a portion of his field diary. For Dirk‘s complete Gaza diary go to http://ioccingaza.blogspot.com
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. 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 along the scenic Mediterranean coast.
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 Church 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 follows 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.
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 the Church with various tasks. Even though we have become close friends over the past months, I am always humbled by the life of this dedicated man of God.
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 hygiene supplies – made from the courtyard of the Orthodox Church and monastery is being finalized today – and many of the beneficiaries are expressing their gratitude to IOCC. 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 evening brings the start of the most significant and meaningful part of my time in Gaza during this visit, as we join 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 about 6-10 feet below street level, we venerate the relics of the Saint, which are placed beneath his icon.
Departing Gaza after lunch to cross back into Israel via the Erez crossing, I reflect on the meaning and significance of the past days and IOCC's efforts to minister to persons and families in need. I cannot compare the relative levels of human need in Gaza with what I have experienced in many of the world's poorest countries and conflict areas. Even so, the needs of the people of Gaza are significant - and it is in this place where I am called to serve at this time through IOCC.