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Jerusalem church leaders plead for peace and equal rights, and condemn attacks on civilians

09 October 2023

Archbishops of Canterbury and York ‘unequivocally condemn the attacks by Hamas

Alamy

Israeli airstrikes light up the Gaza skyline on Sunday night, in retaliation for the violent incursions by militant Hamas fighters in southern Israel

Israeli airstrikes light up the Gaza skyline on Sunday night, in retaliation for the violent incursions by militant Hamas fighters in southern Israel

A PLEA for “a just and lasting peace in the Holy Land, based on equal rights for all” has been issued by the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem in the wake of a devastating attack on Israel by Hamas, which was followed by extensive retaliatory air strikes on Gaza.

More than 700 people have been killed in Israel since Hamas launched the biggest attack in decades at dawn on Saturday, the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah. A barrage of thousands of rockets was followed by the movement of gunmen across the border. The Israeli rescue service Zaka reported that it had retrieved at least 260 bodies from the site of a music festival held near the border with Gaza. The Israel Defence Forces has described it as “the worst massacre of innocent civilians in Israel’s history”.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has declared war on Hamas, vowing to take “mighty vengeance”. On Saturday, he told the residents of Gaza to “leave now”, warning that the Israeli army would “turn all Hamas hideouts into rubble”. The Israeli government has announced that it will cut the supply of electricity, food, and fuel to the area, 141 square miles that are home to two million Palestinians, and controlled by Hamas since 2007. A blockade of Gaza has been in place since 2007 (News, 25 January 2008).

On Monday, a military spokesperson said that Israel had drafted a record 300,000 reservists and was “going on the offensive”.

The Ministry of Health in Gaza has reported that at least 493 Palestinians have been killed since Saturday. The dead included three-month-old twins, killed with their mother and three sisters in an air strike on Saturday in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, family members told Reuters.

Statements from church leaders in the region condemned the violence and drew attention to the broader context.

On Sunday, the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, including the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, Dr Hosam Naoum, said in a statement: “The Holy Land, a place sacred to countless millions around the world, is currently mired in violence and suffering due to the prolonged political conflict and the lamentable absence of justice and respect for human rights. We, the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, have time and again appealed for the importance of respecting the historic and legal status quo of the holy shrines. In these trying times, we come together to raise our voices in unity, echoing the divine message of peace and love for all humanity. . .

“We unequivocally condemn any acts that target civilians, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, or faith. Such actions go against the fundamental principles of humanity and the teachings of Christ, who implored us to ‘love your neighbour as yourself . . .

“We implore political leaders and authorities to engage in sincere dialogue, seeking lasting solutions that promote justice, peace, and reconciliation for the people of this land, who have endured the burdens of conflict for far too long. . . We call upon the international community to redouble its efforts to mediate a just and lasting peace in the Holy Land, based on equal rights for all and on international legitimacy.”

The Palestinian Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan, Dr Sani-Ibrahim Azar, also issued a statement offering prayers “for the families of innocent civilians”.

He continued: “As the language of ‘war’ is now being used to characterise this violence, it is important to remember that the warfare of today is not isolated. . . As a Church, we continue to advocate for non-violence; but we also believe it is crucial to understand the circumstances from which violence emerges. In this case, it is a symptom of a people deeply wounded by extended and systematic violence and oppression. The Holy Land has seen unprecedented attacks on religious sites in recent years, which makes our situation even more personal and emotional.”

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a joint statement on Saturday that said: “we unequivocally condemn the attacks by Hamas. . . The way forward must be for both sides to build confidence in a secure future through which Israel and its people can live in security within its internationally-recognised borders, and Palestinians have their own state and live in their lands in security, and with peace and justice.”

Gaza is home to a diminishing number of Christians, of between 900 and 1000, who, through organisations such as Caritas and the Near East Council of Churches, are involved in running frontline services. The Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem runs the Al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza. Its director, Suhaila Tarazi, has issued an emergency appeal to meet an “urgent need” for medications and other resources.

“The situation is severely critical, and the consequences for people in Gaza are very bad, particularly in the health sector,” she said. “The Ministry of Health has triggered an emergency situation and asked all health-service providers to increase their emergency response capacity. Life in Gaza is paralysed, with all institutions and private sectors closed, affecting the people’s access to basic needs, particularly health. . .

“The role of AAH could be highly significant in saving lives during emergencies and in eliminating the gap in the healthcare system. . . Please pray with us that this wave of violence will be stopped, as there are no winners in wars. All are losers.”

The hospital, more than 120 years old, is a partner of the Christian charity Embrace the Middle East (News, 21 October 2016). On Monday, Embrace’s director of programmes and partners, Jamie Eyre, said that some people in Gaza had fled to churches and schools for safety, while others had remained in their homes. Other partners had had to pause work, including baby clinics run by the Near East Council of Churches.

“People are telling us they are OK, but there’s a real sense of fear,” he said. “There’s a real sense that the devastation is bigger than before. This is no surprise: they are used to this; but it’s different.”

Anxiety had been raised by the vow to cut off supplies. A partner helping to run Aviv Ministry, which provides shelter and care to people living with addictions on the streets of south Tel Aviv, had described living within distance of missiles being fired by Hamas.

The entire region of Israel and Palestine was affected, the chief executive, Tim Livesey, said. The warning from Mr Netanyahu to leave Gaza made no sense: “He knows perfectly well there’s nowhere safe to go.”

“Embrace has been saying now for a number of years, including to the UN Security Council, that failure on the part of the international community to address the underlying causes of the conflict can only have one consequence, which is a continued cycle of violence,” he said. If the promised siege of Gaza lasted, people could die from lack of medication or from starvation. The charity has put out a prayer for peace.

The secretary-general of the Anglican Communion, the Rt Revd Anthony Poggo, said: “I weep for the peoples of the region and pray for peace. In particular, I pray for the safety of all civilians — whether residents or tourists and pilgrims — and I pray for a cessation of violence.” He thanked Dr Hosam for his care of members of the International Commission for Anglican-Orthodox Theological Dialogue (ICAOTD), currently meeting in Jerusalem.

The Dean of St George’s College, Jerusalem, Canon Richard Sewell, wrote on Twitter/X on Monday: “Missiles on W Jerusalem today and around C and S Israel. Gaza is being pounded and death toll on both sides is horrific. Visceral grief and anger. Two sides with no common ground. In discussing issues it’s useful for everyone everywhere to carefully consider the view they exclude.”

On Sunday, Downing Street said that the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, had been in touch with Mr Netanyahu to affirm that the UK would “stand with Israel unequivocally against these acts of terror” and to offer “any support Israel needs”. That evening, Downing Street was lit up in the Israeli flag, and the Government has asked that all its buildings follow suit.

The Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council are due to hold a vigil on Monday evening outside Downing Street. In a statement, the Board said: “At a time when the Jewish community should be partaking in the annual celebration of the renewal of our Torah, we are instead in mourning for those killed by murderous Hamas terrorists. . . We stand with Israel as it seeks to restore security and reunite families.”

The Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, spoke of emerging from two days of Jewish holidays to “the unimaginable scale and unprecedented brutality of the terrorist attacks on innocent civilians across Israel. We are shocked and devastated by the inhumanity of the mass murder, kidnapping and purposeful desecration of Jewish life.”

The Israeli Government Press Office reported on Sunday said more than 100 people had been taken hostage by Hamas; footage has been circulating on social media, including film apparently showing Shani Nicole Louk, a German citizen, being paraded through the streets in the back of a pick-up truck after being stripped half naked.

Among the missing is Jake Marlowe, a British citizen from Potters Bar, who had been working at the event as a security guard. “I’ve left him lots of WhatsApp messages but I’ve not been able to leave him a [voice] message. . . I can’t bear to listen to the phone just ringing and not being answered,” his mother, Lisa, told The Jewish Chronicle.

On Sunday, the Ambassador of the Permanent Observer Mission of the State of Palestine to the United Nations, Dr Riyad Mansour, wrote: “The situation has reached the dangerous, explosive point that we have continually and explicitly warned of, yet to no avail. . . Even as the occupying power becomes more ferocious, racist, and extreme, its systematic assaults on the Palestinian people and human rights violations escalating by the day, the pleas for international protection of our people remain unmet. These developments did not occur in a vacuum.”

“You cannot say nothing justifies killing Israelis and then provide justification for killing Palestinians,” he told reporters at the UN on Sunday. “We are not sub-humans.”

Reuters reported on Sunday that Sabreen Abu Daqqa, who was dug from the rubble of houses struck in Khan Younis, had woken up in hospital to learn that three of her children had been killed, two of them had been wounded, and the fate of a sixth was unclear.

A statement issued by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem on Saturday said: “The continuing bloodshed and declarations of war remind us once again of the urgent need to find a lasting and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in this land, which is called to be a land of justice, peace and reconciliation among peoples. . . We ask God to inspire world leaders in their intervention for the implementation of peace and concord so that Jerusalem may be a house of prayer for all peoples.”

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