‘Living stones’ of Al Ahli Arab Hospital build a ministry of healing, witness in Gaza

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Mar 27, 2018
Michael Curry with baby

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry hands a toddler back to her mother while visiting a session for mothers and their young children at Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City. Jerusalem Archbishop Suheil Dawani is at right. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Gaza City] Healing comes in many forms, and Al Ahli Arab Hospital’s medical ministry combines every day with Christian witness to provide the people of the Gaza Strip with an example of the love of Christ in action.

That example is set in an area whose Christian population is dwindling. Suhaila Tarazi, the hospital’s director general, estimates there are no more than 900 Christians among Gaza’s 2 million residents. Ten years ago, the number of Christians stood at 3,000 and the total population was around 1.5 million.

Tarazi told Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and his delegation March 26 that the remaining Christians are “the living stones” of Gaza, and so too are institutions like Al Ahli Arab Hospital, which is one of more than 30 social service ministries of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem.

“We try through our mission of healing and love to preserve Christianity,” Tarazi said. “We put our Christianity in action. It’s not talking; it’s not preaching. It’s action.”

Just 12 of the Anglican hospital’s 120 employees are Christian, Tarazi said, but all employees work together and learn how to accept one another and love their neighbors. That work is all to further the hospital’s ministry of healing and reconciliation. The hospital ministers to all, irrespective of race, religion or ability to pay.

“The number of Christians in Gaza are decreasing dramatically, but the witness to the way of Jesus is as strong as ever because at Al Ahli Arab Hospital healing happens – Muslim, Christian, anyone who needs it, healing happens,” Curry told Episcopal News Service after his return to Jerusalem. “And that is the way of Jesus. That is what love looks like. That is what the sacrifice on the cross was about.”

Holy Land baby

A toddler’s mother shows off her child to visitors at Al Ahli Arab Hospital. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Curry and staff members who accompanied him met some of the patients and employees and heard about the services that benefit some 38,000 Gaza Strip residents each year. The hospital offers general surgery, general medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics and emergency care. People are treated without regard to their financial situation, according to Tarazi.

She said the hospital struggles to survive and do the work of Jesus “in the most difficult and gloomy situation.” A drive from the Israeli border to the hospital shows a city where cars swerve around donkey-drawn carts, and some buildings still show the evidence of mortar strikes from previous fighting.

A statue depicting a large bronze-colored fist rises out of the ground in one small clearing. Placards that appeared to praise men whom residents call freedom fighters and Israelis call terrorists are common sights on street corners. Other placards or murals, including one at the Gaza border crossing, seem to warn residents against becoming traitors by cooperating with Israel.

Rubble piles are common, and some children forage in garbage-strewn lots. Forty-four percent of adults are unemployed, and 33 percent of children suffer from undernourishment or malnutrition, Tarazi said. The hospital sees nearly 700 such children ages 6 months to 3 years via a program designed to monitor their health and teach their mothers about nutrition and other health issues.

Drinking water is polluted, as is the air, according to Dr. Maher Ayyad, medical director. Both communicable diseases and non-communicable ones, such as cancer and hypertension, are on the rise. Ayyad said that, as a Palestinian, he does not like to talk about politics but “my belief is that without America there will never be a solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bringing peace to that area will further peace efforts in the entire Middle East, he said.

“We pray all the time here because, as Christians, we believe in peace. We pray that God will give wisdom to our leaders to have peace in this area.”

Al Ahli Arab Hospital

Al Ahli Arab Hospital has been ministering as a Christian witness in Gaza City since 1882. The institution was founded by the Church of England’s Church Mission Society and was later run as a medical mission by the Southern Baptist Conference from 1954 to 1982. It then returned to the Anglican Church. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

The hospital’s situation is made more difficult by the restrictions Israel places on Gaza residents, including the movement of medicines and medical supplies, food, fuel and people in and out of the area. Electricity service only works sporadically, and often the hospital must run its 400 kilowatt generator for 16 hours a day. It takes $90 of fuel to power the generator each hour, Tarazi said.


From left, Suhaila Tarazi, Al Ahli Arab Hospital’s director general, and Dr. Maher Ayyad, medical director, explain the ministry of the hospital and the challenges it faces. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Episcopal Relief & Development helps the hospital with its fuel and food needs.

The hospital is currently struggling in part because of a Trump administration decision in January to withhold $65 million of a $125 million contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA).

The cut means UNRWA will only pay a fourth of what the hospital expected in reimbursement for the care it gives, according to Tarazi.

If money and supplies are always an issue, vision and ambition are not. For instance, the hospital has a program for early detection of breast cancer among women older than 40. The American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and Islamic Relief have helped the hospital obtain a state-of-the-art mammography machine and the equipment needed to read the resulting x-rays. Support also has come from the Australian Anglican Overseas Aid organization.

Education is an important part of the program. That was evident as Curry and his group toured the hospital campus. In a room in the breast-cancer department, hospital employees were teaching a woman in a burka how to do breast self-examination. They were using a rubber device with simulated breasts that fit on the woman’s chest outside of her clothing. There are 800 new breast cancer cases in Gaza each year, Tarazi said.

The breast health education effort is important to increase early diagnosis, according to Tarazi and Ayyad. Otherwise treatment becomes a life-threatening emergency in which time is of the essence. Time moves very slowly in Gaza in those cases. Too often, the combination of aid from the Palestinian Authority and Israeli permission to leave Gaza for treatment cannot be coordinated with available appointments at facilities outside of the area. The Gaza hospital does not have radiation oncology equipment of its own.

Curry’s group, accompanied by Jerusalem Archbishop Suheil Dawani, met a woman who had already had a single mastectomy and now had been told that there was cancer in her other breast. Hospital officials were trying to get her out of Gaza for treatment.

The World Health Organization estimates that only 40 percent of Gazans who need to leave for cancer treatment get permission to do so.

Despite all the difficulties faced by the people of Gaza, Dawani insisted that “we will endure” in order to help that woman and others like her.

Hospital courtyard

Signs in the courtyard of Al Ahli Arab Hospital point patients to various departments. Dr. Maher Ayyad, the hospital’s medical director, says the serene greenery of the courtyard is itself part of the hospital’s ministry. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Al Ahli Arab Hospital is constantly trying to build partnerships around the world to aid its mission. It is in the early stages of an agreement with Texas-based MD Anderson Cancer Center. The potential $30 million partnership would bring equipment to the hospital and enable the medical staff to consult electronically with MD Anderson doctors on cases. Gaza staff could go through the Texas system for training, as well.

The hospital also has a grant from USAID to build a center for minimally invasive surgery. All staff surgeons will be trained in the technique, and the $900,000 grant will also help purchase the surgical equipment.

Curry was in the third day of a Holy Week pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Previous ENS coverage of his travels can be found here.

The presiding bishop is accompanied by the Rev. Charles Robertson, canon to the presiding bishop for ministry beyond the Episcopal Church; the Rev. Margaret Rose, Episcopal Church deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations; the Rev. Robert Edmunds, Episcopal Church Middle East partnership officer; and Sharon Jones, Curry’s executive coordinator.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is interim managing editor of the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (6)

  1. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    During my own limited visits to the Middle East I made friends with Palestinians as well as Israelis and concluded that the Palestinians overall had indeed often been given a bad deal. Overviewing the enormous sprawling refugee camps in Jordan, however, I once asked myself whether many politicians hadn’t personally profited from the fact that these camps seem to have become a permanent feature of the landscape.

    I thought of this while reading Mary Frances Schjonberg’s interesting account of Bishop Curry’s visit to Gaza. Of course one feels sympathy for the medical staff at the hospital who accomplish good things under often dreadful conditions. But I cannot share the implied suggestion that the “Trump administration decision” to withhold roughly half of its contribution to UNRWA is necessarily a bad thing. even though the hospital may be adversely affected. That money may eventually reach its intended beneficiaries. For the moment, however, and irrespective of what one thinks of President Trump, it is stupid not to bear in mind that the United Nations is about as corrupt an organization as exists in the world and that much of our financial contribution to UN enterprises over the years has gone down the drain or into the pockets of corrupt politicians.

    That, very sadly, is true in places run by the Palestinians. I wonder if Bishop Curry and his entourage have taken the time to drive through Ramallah and Nablus to admire the many luxurious homes built by Palestinian “leaders” who think more of lining their own pockets courtesy of the American taxpayer than of using that money to benefit the truly poor people for whom it was intended. Until this situation changes I shall remain less sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than I might be otherwise.

  2. Vicki Gray says:

    Thank you, Michael, for your witness. And thank you, Mary Frances, for sharing the needs, concerns, and hopes of those trapped in this suffering corner of the world, the world’s largest open-air prison..

    For those who want to learn more about what happened in Gaza during the Israeli bombing campaigns of 2008-9 and 2014, I recommend “Eyes on Gaza” and “Night in Gaza” by Mads Gilbert, the Norwegian doctor who worked tirelessly at Shifa Hospital treating the thousands of wounded.

    And, Tony, I too hope the Presiding Bishop will drive to Ramallah and Nablus…hopefully along the roads Palestinians are confined to and through the several checkpoints Palestinians must endure on such a short journey…and maybe stop in Taybeh, the all Christian village between those two cities..

  3. Donna Hicks says:

    Indeed there are people of wealth who take advantage of the poor and take advantage of various forms of funding which come in, to their own advantage. I would hope we wouldn’t condemn or belittle or not be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause because of that. While many quibble over UNRWA funding and the way in which UNRWA operates, remember that Israel as the occupying power (in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights) is responsible for providing services to the people whose land they are occupying. Israel denies that it is an occupying power, of course. I would also lift up the many Palestinians, individuals and organizations, who practice nonviolent resistance to the Occupation. We don’t often hear about them in our media.

  4. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    I have no reason to belittle the Palestinian cause. Indeed during the several weeks I once spent in Jerusalem and the West Bank (many years ago!) I found it easy to make friends with local people who were very hospitable to me and eager to explain themselves. Some made a point of suggesting that under happier circumstances they would have no problem getting along with their Israeli masters. I know there are Jewish Israelis who feel the same way about Palestinians and do not like the idea of lording it over them. People for whom I feel a great deal of sympathy are the Palestinian Christians in Jordan who are in danger of being overwhelmed and crowded out by the huge influx of non-Christians who immediately build a mosque on every available street corner while Christian churches (if permitted at all) suffer.

  5. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    To Donna Hicks and others: What you refer to as “people of wealth” taking advantage of others consists in large measure of the Palestinian Authority which has been around for twenty years and which has received BILLIONS of dollars from the United States and other countries. We have turned a blind eye to the fact that a large part of these funds has ended up in the pockets of people like the current head of the PA while ordinary Palestinians such as many of those Bishop Curry saw this week during his visit continue to suffer. So long as nothing is done to correct this situation American taxpayers should turn off the spigot but I’m afraid that won’t happen.

  6. Donna Hicks says:

    While this article by Amira Hass deals with other issues, she does have some comments to make about the political factions and their credibility and honor. Check it out: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-gaza-s-march-of-return-reflects-a-desire-for-new-palestinian-politics-1.5963725

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