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Pope condemns assault on Gaza church after IDF snipers kill two women

18 December 2023

Dan Palraz/Creative Commons

The Church of the Holy Family, Gaza

The Church of the Holy Family, Gaza

THE Roman Catholic compound in Gaza has come under fire, with two women shot by an Israeli sniper “in cold blood”, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem reported on Saturday. The account has been disputed by the IDF.

The Patriarchate’s statement on Saturday said: “A sniper of the IDF murdered two Christian women inside the Holy Family Parish in Gaza.”

Nahida — later named by Pope Francis as Nahida Khalil Anton — and her daughter Samar had been “shot and killed” as they walked to the Convent of the Sisters of Mother Theresa (Missionaries of Charity), part of the compound of the Holy Family parish, and home to more than 54 disabled people.

“One was killed as she tried to carry the other to safety,” the statement said. “Seven more people were shot and wounded as they tried to protect others inside the church compound. No warning was given, no notification was provided. They were shot in cold blood inside the premises of the Parish, where they are no belligerents.” The incident had occurred “around noon”.

On Saturday, Vatican News reported that the IDF had entered the compound, shooting at anyone leaving the church. “The victims are an elderly woman and her daughter who rushed out of the building to rescue her mother. Israel has justified the attack, claiming the presence of a missile launcher in the parish,” it reported.

In a statement quoted by the BBC on Sunday, the IDF said: “During the dialogue between the IDF and representatives of the community, no reports of a hit on the church, nor civilians being injured or killed, were raised. A review of the IDF’s operational findings support this.”

At the Angelus on Sunday, Pope Francis condemned the attack on the compound, “where there are no terrorists, but families, children, people who are sick and have disabilities, and nuns . . . Some say, ‘This is terrorism. This is war.’ Yes, it is war. It is terrorism.”

Writing on social media on Saturday, Hammam Farah, a psychotherapist based in Canada, described the two women as “family friends”. They had been walking to the convent to use the only bathroom, he wrote. “Their bodies remain strewn across the church courtyard. . . The Christian community in Gaza is on the verge of extinction.” His own family members remained in the compound.

According to the Patriarchate, earlier in the morning “a rocket from an IDF tank targeted the convent.” The building’s generator — its only source of electricity — and “fuel resources” had been destroyed. “The house was damaged by the resulting explosion and massive fire. Two more rockets, fired by an IDF tank, targeted the same Convent and rendered the home uninhabitable. The 54 disabled persons are currently displaced and without access to the respirators that some of them need to survive.”

The statement continued that, on Friday night, three people had been wounded inside the church compound as the result of “heavy bombing” in the area. Solar panels and water tanks — “indispensable for the survival of the community” — had been destroyed. The Patriarchate was “at a loss to comprehend how such an attack could be carried out, even more so as the whole Church prepares for Christmas”.

The Holy Family parish is situated in northern Gaza and is the only Roman Catholic church in Gaza. Its parish priest, Fr Gabriel Romanelli, said earlier this month that about 600 people were sheltering in the church (News, 8 December). Many had arrived after an Israeli air strike on the compound of St Porphyrios’s Greek Orthodox church, which reportedly killed 18 people, including nine children (News, 27 October).

Despite IDF orders to leave the northern part of Gaza, people had chosen to stay, he said in a film produced for the Patriarchate. “People said ‘where shall we go . . . to a place where there is no water, food or electricity?’ It was dangerous, as bombings were taking place both north and south. They chose to remain where they were, trusting in Jesus, so they truly felt the presence of God.”

On Saturday, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who has visited the church a number of times, said that he was “heartbroken” by the information provided by the Patriarchate, which “gives a picture of seemingly deliberate and callous killing by IDF soldiers of innocent civilians: an elderly woman and her daughter in the grounds of a church. This killing has to stop. It can never be justified.”

Among those sheltering in the church are members of the family of Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford and Abingdon (News, 10 November): a grandmother, her son, his wife, and their 11-year-old twins. Earlier this month she said that a sixth member, a grandfather, had died from dehydration, and because he couldn’t get to a hospital. Another was sick from drinking contaminated water (News, 8 December).

“I’m now no longer sure they are going to survive until Christmas,” she told the BBC on Sunday.

On Friday, she wrote on social media that the compound had been attacked. “The bin collector and the janitor have been shot and their bodies are laying outside and remain uncollected. The generators have also stopped working and so calls are v short now. No internet of course. They are beyond desperate and terrified.”

On Saturday, she reported that “soldiers are at the gates and there was a fire when they hit one of the (already dysfunctional) generators. There is no water left. There are 300 people there. We don’t know why this is happening. Are they going to be expelled from a church just days before Christmas?”

On Sunday, she wrote: “A tank has taken position outside the church and the building opposite has been taken. The people inside have died. There are snipers at every window pointing into the church. Still shooting anyone emerging from buildings to use e.g. toilets. Still no food or water.”

There was a sniper “inside the compound”, she told the BBC. “They are absolutely terrified.”

“It makes a mockery of when Israel says it’s not targeting civilians. I don’t know what’s happening here: either the rules of engagement are being ignored or there is a plan to clear the whole of Gaza. Whatever it is, it needs to stop. My family are not justifiable collateral damage.”

The director of advocacy at the Roman Catholic aid agency CAFOD, Neil Thorns, said that the Holy Family was “a place of sanctuary and should have been respected as such. It’s because it’s such a longstanding and well-recognised place of worship in the area that today’s reports are all the more shocking. . .

“We urge all those with influence to join their voices with that of Pope Francis in calling for an immediate ceasefire and the release of all hostages.”

According to Fr Romanelli — who has been unable to return to Gaza, having travelled to Rome at the end of September — there were 135 Latin Catholics in Gaza before the conflict (out of a total of 1017 Christians). The Patriarchate operates three RC schools (with a largely Muslim intake of pupils), and a Caritas centre. There are also three religious orders present: the Sisters of Mother Theresa, the Rosary Sisters, and the Incarnate Word Sisters.

“We care for our loved ones and those around us but without any partiality,” he said. “The Church has always been doing this kind of service in the example of Jesus Christ who gave bread to all, and healed all without distinction, anyone who was in need.”

The Rosary Sisters School, which had 1250 students — one of the largest institutions educating poor communities in Gaza — was destroyed in early November, Aid to the Church in Need reported. The Sisters had already evacuated and were sheltering at the church with some of their pupils. No lives were lost.

Sister Nabila Saleh, the school’s principal, told the charity that it would be logistically impossible to move the elderly, children, sick and those with disabilities. “We will not go and leave our people,” she said. “We are here to accompany them: we cannot possibly abandon them.”

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