Local residents taking refuge in Church of the Holy Family as missiles strike nearby homes.
Pope Francis sent a short message to the pastor and his small Catholic community in Gaza to show his closeness during the Israeli invasion of the territory, according to the Fides News Agency.
"I am close to you, to the nuns and the entire Catholic community. I accompany you with my prayers and my closeness. May Jesus bless you and the Blessed Virgin protect you," the Pope wrote.
The brief text was published on the website of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, of which the pastor, Father Jorge Hernandez, and several nuns who minister there are members.
Pope Francis also personally telephoned President Shimon Peres of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine today. Vatican Information Service reported that the Pope phoned the two, whom he had invited to the Vatican last month, "to share his very serious concerns regarding the current situation of conflict involving in particular the Gaza Strip which, in a climate of growing hostility, hatred and suffering for the two populations, is claiming many victims and giving rise to a serious humanitarian emergency."
"As during his recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land and on the occasion of the invocation for peace on 8 June, the Holy Father assured them of his ceaseless prayer, and that of all the Church, for peace in the Holy Land," VIS reported. "He reminded the presidents, whom he considers to be men of peace and seekers of peace, of the need to continue to pray and endeavour to ensure that all the interested parties and those who hold political office at local and international level work to bring an end to hostilities, making efforts to promote truce, peace and reconciliation in the hearts of those involved."
According to the Jerusalem Post, Peres assured the Pope that Israel is doing everything it can to find a peaceful solution and that terrorist entities and extremists bear responsibility for the current suffering in Gaza.
Peres told Pope Francis, "We are currently under fire from rocket attacks by a terrorist group in Gaza."
"The residents of Gaza are not our enemies and we don’t want to see them suffer. Gazans themselves did not choose the situations they are currently in," Peres told the Pope adding that, "The purpose of our work is to put an end to the tactics which terrorists have developed—rockets in the sky and tunnels under the ground. In recent days Israel has discovered two underground tunnels which allowed terrorists to reach into the heart of towns and kill civilians indiscriminately.
"Luckily we prevented murder," said Peres.
According to the newspaper Pope Francis said to Peres in the phone call that, "This is a very painful time. I am convinced that God brought us together in prayer for peace in a prophetic gesture marking the way to the future. There are many innocent people who died or suffered because of different extremists, still we must move forward and insist on the way of prayer for peace. I believe in the power of prayer."
The Pope’s message to the Gaza parish had a strong resonance on the ground.
Yesterday evening," said one of the nuns at the Catholic parish, Brazilian Sister Laudis, "Father Jorge translated the text in Arabic to make it known to all families. Everybody was touched by the message."
She also reported that that church, Holy Family, was dangerously close to an Israeli missile strike.
"Yesterday afternoon, after 5pm, three missiles destroyed a house very close to the parish," said Sister Laudis.
The Israeli army’s ground offensive, concentrated in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, was accompanied by intensified air and naval raids on Gaza City throughout the night. The parish is involved in the humanitarian emergency triggered by the military intervention. Father Hernandez, an Argentine, has welcomed numerous family groups in the school premises who have fled from their homes situated in the bombed areas, as well as sisters of the Missionaries of Charity. Father Hernandez has been engaged in the search for water and food for the displaced.
The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem reported that there will be permanent Eucharistic Adoration in the parish and that Mass was celebrated "to implore forgiveness for all, justice and peace."
Father Hernandez said the small Catholic community and the entire population of Gaza, is suffering from severe stress.
"Young children are beginning to get sick because of fear, stress, shock waves and for the continuous noise,” he said. “Parents are doing everything they can to distract them by playing, jumping and dancing every time they hear an explosion."
The death toll of the Israeli military operation on the Gaza Strip has caused at least 227 deaths among Palestinians, mostly civilians. In the few hours of the ceasefire, the population of Gaza was out in the streets to get money from the banks and buy basic necessities.