In the past six years the number of Christians in the Gaza Strip has plummeted from 4,500 to just 1,000, due to the harsh conditions under which they are living, according to the pastor of the territory's sole Catholic church.

Gazans “live like it's an open air prison since we can't leave. We can't visit relatives, look for work, medicine or good hospitals on the outside,” Fr. Mario da Silva told ACI Prensa.

The Gaza Strip is a 141 square mile area, part of Palestine, located to the west of Israel and home to 1.8 million persons. Since 2007, it has been ruled by the Islamist movement Hamas.

Since Hamas came to power there, Israel and Egypt have conducted an economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, restricting the flow of persons and goods in an effort to limit rocket attacks on Israel launched from the territory.

Fr. da Silva, a priest of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, recalled that when he arrived in Gaza in 2012 “the situation was already very difficult. Over time, you would hope the situation would get better, but it's only gotten worse.”

He related that inhabitants have only three hours of electricity a day, and there is a shortage of drinking water.

Most Gazans are unemployed, he said, and those who do work live on “about $150-200 a month.”

“It's really a prison. People don't have any money and the situation is terrible. There is widespread poverty.”

The harsh conditions imposed on Gaza has led to the exodus of Palestinian Christians.

“Every year Christians have one permit to leave and visit the holy places on Easter and Christmas,” and a many of them never return, explained Fr. da Silva.

In order to stem the tide, the priest's Holy Family parish is working with 12 religious sisters, of the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará, the Missionaries of Charity, and the Sisters of the Rosary congregations.

“We're doing two things: first, preaching Christ and the importance of Christians in the Holy Land; preaching the importance of forgiveness and of carrying the cross is what we most try to do.”

The second form of aid is material assistance projects, he said: “For example, with the help of institutions such as the Pontifical Mission or the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Church tries to give work to more that 30 young people so they won't leave, because they are mainly the ones who leave.”

He noted that the parish also cares for adherents of other religions: “The Christian community is very small and there are 2 million Muslims. They are also in great need. We have always opened the doors of our schools or our church during times of war to take in those seeking refuge.”

“There is not a very great persecution of Christians,” the priest said. “Though there is now a lot of fear with the news that the Islamic State has arrived, coming from the Sinai Peninsula, in Egypt … There have already been threats. There is also fear of the Salafist groups who are coming in from the south,” he said.

“In fact, when we have problems with Muslims who want to do something against the church, we've asked the government to protect us and they have done so,” he added.

The joy of Easter was tinged this year by a decrease in the permits given by Israel for Palestinian Christians to visit holy places in its territory, Fr. da Silva said.

“It was also very sad because Israel always gives permission for Christians so they can visit the holy places for Christmas and Easter,” but this year they only gave 300 permits instead of the 700 they usually grant. These permits were “for children and the elderly, who are really the people who can't go out by themselves. Very few people actually went,” he lamented.

Nevertheless, “there was joy because Christ has risen and because our salvation comes from that, which is much more important than our material life; but on the human level it was a very sad Easter,” he said.

“Pray much for this, which is what we mainly ask for, because only God can change the situation we're going through in these countries here in the Middle East,” he concluded.

This article was originally published by our sister agency, ACI Prensa. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.