Page last updated at 12:03 GMT, Thursday, 15 January 2009

'Do more' to help Gaza - priest

Father Eamon Martin
Father Eamon Martin visited Bethlehem and Ramallah

A Derry priest who is visiting the Holy Land has called on people in Ireland to do more to help those suffering from the violence in Gaza.

Father Eamon Martin, the former principal of St Columb's College, is in Bethlehem, 40 miles from Gaza, with a delegation from the Catholic church.

Fr Martin said people in Gaza were living in "terrible fear".

More than 1,000 Palestinians have died in the fighting between Israel and Hamas, according to the United Nations.

Fr Martin said it was his first visit to the Holy Land, and the atmosphere in Bethlehem was tense.

"There are black flags flying from the Church of the Nativity, there are posters up pleading for peace and pleading for an end to the killing in Gaza," he said.

"We've been meeting with parishioners, students, teachers, clergy, and listening to their stories.

"Many of these people have friends and relatives in Gaza and they're extremely worried."

'Terrible fear'

Fr Martin said the most moving part of the visit was a telephone call he received from the parish priest in Gaza.

"It really would have brought tears to a stone to hear his stories.

"He told us about one of his parishioners, a young girl, 14 years old, who died of sheer fear and shock at the noise of the bombardment and the rockets and the bombs falling around her.

Smoke over Gaza after an Israeli air strike, 15 January 2009
Smoke billows over Gaza after an Israeli air strike

"He told us about people who were short of food, they no longer have any water, their electricity is cut, and they are living from day to day, in terrible fear.

"He was pleading with us to do what we can to press the international community and government to try to bring people to the table and talk and sort out this terrible situation," he said.

'Building peace'

Fr Martin said that the fact he was from Northern Ireland struck a chord with people in the Holy Land.

"As soon as people hear where I'm from they will ask about the situation," he said.

"It was very moving to hear some parishioners say to us that they can remember praying for peace in Northern Ireland, and it was very comforting to be able to give them some hope and to tell them that despite our own tragic past, we have begun to build peace here in our home country.

"I also think there are quite of a number of similarities - when you look around you can see the checkpoints, the barriers, and the soldiers in the streets, and there is the daily news round about bombs and rocket attacks and the killing and maiming.

"Underneath you can sense the deeper factors - the segregation, the real complications of the situation here, the divisions and the subdivisions, the fears, the propaganda, the blame game.

"There are so many similarities to what we came through, although the degree of the violence here is really horrific.

"It's a terrifying nightmare."

An Israeli tank moves into the Gaza strip
An Israeli tank moves into the Gaza strip

Fr Martin also visited Ramallah, where many people from Gaza are now stranded.

"There was one man there, he had brought his children to visit their grandparents in Ramallah, and he was crying as he told us that he doesn't know how the rest of the family in Gaza are doing.

"He said he doesn't know if he'll be able to get back to see them at all.

"It really cries out to us to do what we can to help these people," he said.

Fr Martin said that the visit had a profound impact on him.

"To sit here just a matter of yards from where Jesus was born... it really calls on us to pray for these people and to be with them in their suffering," he said.

"It also calls on us to come to them and when you meet parishioners here, listen to their concerns, and do what we can to persuade our governments and the international community to intervene here so that they can begin to build peace.

"But the people also want practical help, and I would like to bring back home the idea of some sort of action project, of links perhaps between our parishes at home and the parishes out here.

"Of course help with resources and finances, but also perhaps sending some of our young people to come out and work on their projects here and to help build links between Ireland and the Holy Land."

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