by Saud Abu Ramadan
GAZA, Dec. 25 (Xinhua) -- When Christians all over the world rushed to churches for Christmas midnight mass, some 300 followers of the small Roman Catholic community in the Gaza Strip gathered at the Holy Family School in Gaza for a silent ceremony.
"This year, Christmas comes under a siege without anything supportive. No cloths, no shoes, no food and no gifts due to the (Israeli) blockade and the hard economic situation," said Gaza Latin Church pastor Manuel Musallem.
Israeli sanctions on the Gaza Strip, aimed at isolating the Islamic Hamas movement, have taken toll on the Christian community in the Gaza Strip, home to a total of 1.4 million largely aid-dependent residents.
The tiny Christian community in Gaza called off the midnight mass to protest Israel's blockade and show their solidarity after Israel prevented most of them from traveling to the Church of Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus Christ.
About 4,000 Christians live in the besieged Gaza. Most of them belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, while the rest follow the Latin Church Christmas calendar, which falls on Dec. 25.
According to sources, about 900 Orthodox and Catholic followers applied to travel to Bethlehem from Gaza, but only 280 were granted permission, or less than a third.
"I would have been very happy if only few monks and families attended this gathering while the other majority could make it through to the cradle of Jesus in Bethlehem," Musallem.
"Those who remain silent and don't shout in the face of the world: Yes to life, No to death, can not be human beings," Musallem said.
The silent ceremony at the Holy Family School was held in candle lights due to electricity shortage caused by the Israeli sanctions.
Instead of serving chocolates, strawberry was distributed to the participants to deliver support to local farmers who found their products unable to be exported to European markets.
Israel imposed the blockade on Gaza last year after the Islamic Hamas movement seized control of the coastal territory from security forces loyal to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
In June 2008, Israel eased the sanctions after Egypt brokered a ceasefire between the Jewish state and Palestinian militant groups led by Hamas.
But since early November, Israel restored the tight restrictions after the ceasefire was rocked by a resumption of violence. The lull expired on Dec. 19.
Fouad Ayyad, 28, was denied permit to leave the Gaza Strip. "I miss the holy city and want to pray in the Church of Nativity and see my relatives who live there," he said.
Last year, the Israeli intelligence told Ayyad that he would get the permission to the West Bank if he cooperates with them by providing information from Gaza.
"I rejected their offer and still wait for the permission," he said.