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Church Leaders Meet in Jerusalem to Urge Ceasefire, Condemn Church Bombing

By Catherine Pepinster
Holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City, including the Western Wall and Dome of the Rock, on March 13, 2019. (RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller)

Church leaders in Jerusalem have joined with the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to demand a ceasefire in Gaza and condemn the bombing of the Orthodox church there. The leaders also urged greater security for hospitals and places of worship.

The Oct. 21 statement, signed by the patriarchs and heads of the churches in Jerusalem, came after Archbishop Welby spent several days in Jerusalem following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the ensuing assaults on Gaza by Israeli forces.

“We, the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem, having gathered in prayer with Jerusalem’s honorable guest, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, join with him in expressing, in the strongest possible terms, our condemnation of the Israeli airstrikes that exploded without warning at the Orthodox Church compound of Saint Porphyrios in Gaza,” the statement said.

The Oct.19 bombing of St. Porphyrios Greek Orthodox Church, which killed at least 18 people who were sheltering inside, came just two days after a rocket attack on the Anglican-run al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, which left hundreds dead. According to independent analysis of video by various news sources, the best explanation for the hospital blast is a misfired rocket fired within Gaza. 

Both the church and hospital highlight the presence of Christian organizations working in Gaza and the plight of Palestinian Christians, whose numbers have fallen to less than 1,000. Two of the three centers for Christians in Gaza have been devastated by attack, with only the Catholic church, to date, left unscathed.

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hamas israel jerusalem
Israeli Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon, Israel, Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Avi Roccah)

Welby, who is spiritual head of the Anglican Communion and primate of the Church of England, said his visit was to express solidarity with Christians, especially the Anglican archbishop of Jerusalem.

“I join with the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem calling for a humanitarian ceasefire so that aid can safely reach the innocent civilians of Gaza,” Welby said in a post on X that included the full text of the statement.

The statement from the patriarchs and heads of the churches in Jerusalem, including the Latin patriarch, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, and Theophilos III, patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, urged “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire so that food, water and vital medical supplies can safely be delivered to the relief agencies ministering to the hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians in Gaza, including those operated by our own churches.”

The international community, they said, should “immediately enforce protections in Gaza for sanctuaries of refuge such as hospitals, schools and houses of worship.”

“We call upon all warring parties to de-escalate the violence, cease from indiscriminately targeting civilians on all sides, and operate within the international rules of warfare,” they continued.

The attack on St. Porphyrios, the church leaders said, caused two church halls to collapse around scores of refugees, including women and children, sleeping there. Dozens were crushed. Of the 18 so far confirmed dead, nine were children, according to the statement.

While the three Christian institutions in Gaza — the Greek Orthodox church, the hospital and the Catholic church — focused on Christians, they also helped the rest of the community. “Our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to minister to the most vulnerable,” wrote the church leaders. “And we must do so not only in times of peace. The church must especially act as the church in times of war, for that is when suffering is at its greatest.”

There had been speculation that Welby might issue a plea for a ceasefire with Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, but there may well have been diplomatic sensitivities if it had been issued with Bartholomew, rather than Theophilos III, the Orthodox patriarch in Jerusalem.

On Sunday, Pope Francis spoke to U.S. President Joe Biden by telephone, the Vatican confirmed, to discuss various conflicts and paths to peace. At the regular Angelus prayer at St Peter’s in Rome earlier in the day, the Pope also spoke of his concern about the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza and the attacks on the al-Ahli hospital and the Greek Orthodox church.

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Greek Orthodox Archbishop Alexios holds a funeral prayer for Palestinians who were killed in Israeli airstrikes that hit a Greek Orthodox church, in Gaza City, Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Abed Khaled)

“I renew my appeal for spaces to be opened, for humanitarian aid to continue to arrive and for hostages to be freed,” said the pope.

During his visit to Jerusalem, Welby held talks with church leaders, renewed his call for hostages taken during the Hamas attack to be freed and expressed his sympathy for the victims of that attack in Israel.

Welby preached Sunday at a service in St. George’s Cathedral. He spoke to reporters afterward, warning them of the danger in assuming Israel was responsible for the rocket attack on the al-Ahli hospital. “Do not start propagating another blood libel,” he warned, a reference to false accusations of atrocities by Jews against Christians that have inflamed antisemitism in the past and led to pogroms.

But on Monday, Welby issued a statement to clarify his remarks, saying he regretted use of the phrase “blood libel,” explaining that he had met relatives of victims and hostages of the Hamas attack before he was interviewed.

“I was attempting to articulate that many Jewish people are deeply conscious of a long history of accusations that trace back to the darkest times of their history. That must be borne in mind when we respond to events in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. Especially here in Europe, the vast increase of the profound wickedness of antisemitism must be resisted, and that must involve being aware of that history,” Welby said in his statement.

The archbishop went on to acknowledge that Palestinians must be able to express their own distress at what “is being endured by innocent people living under Israeli bombardment and siege.”

“There must be space for that trauma and grief to be expressed and heard. We must not silence it, dismiss it, or rush to judge it. As those who are not directly involved, we need to hold space for the suffering of all innocent people to be expressed, and to grieve with them,” he said.

Welby reiterated the importance of concentrating “on those who suffer, seek peace and pursue it,” and said he will continue to pray for “lasting justice, security and peace” for the people in the region.

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An Israeli mobile artillery unit fires a shell from southern Israel toward the Gaza Strip, in a position near the border, Oct. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Erik Marmor)

In a recent statement, Michael Dickson, president of Stand With Us, an international nonprofit Israel education organization, said:

“Israel is now at war as a result of continuous barbaric actions by Hamas and its terrorist allies, backed by Iran’s regime . . . Israel has every right to defend itself, and an obligation to protect its citizens against genocidal terrorism.

Tragically, we know that when Israel defends itself against Hamas and other terrorists, innocent Palestinian will suffer. Hamas is once again perpetrating a double war crime: murdering Israeli civilians while hiding behind Palestinian civilians in homes, hospitals, schools, mosques, and elsewhere. . . .We stand unequivocally with the people of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces, as they fight back against this murderous terrorist onslaught.” 

Similarly, evangelical leaders expressed support for Israel’s military response in a statement published by the Ethics and Religius Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. They said in part: 

“Israel stands as a rare example of democracy in a region dominated by authoritarian regimes. The tragic events of October 7th further underscore the importance of democracy in our world and stand as a sober reminder that supporting Israel’s right to exist is both urgent and needed.

In keeping with Christian Just War tradition, we also affirm the legitimacy of Israel’s right to respond against those who have initiated these attacks as Romans 13 grants governments the power to bear the sword against those who commit such evil acts against innocent life . . . “

Josh Shepherd and Julie Roys contributed to this article. 

Catherine Pepinster is a journalist, broadcaster, author, and contributor to Religion News Service.



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7 Responses

  1. The US held military gaming exercises with Israel earlier this year in preparation for what seems to be certain to come…preplanned/prepackaged war.

    “ TAMPA, Fla. – Today, U.S. Central Command and the Israel Defense Forces concluded Juniper Oak 23.2, the largest U.S.-Israel partnered exercise in history. Juniper Oak 23.2 integrated U.S. and Israeli 5th generation fighter assets, the USS George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group, command and control elements, rescue and refueling aircraft during a long-range large force exercise that included a live fire exercise with more than 140 aircraft including B52s, F35s, F15s, F16s, FA-18s, AC-130, AH64s, 12 naval assets, High Mobility Rocket Artillery Systems, Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, a mix of jet fighters, and long-range bombers.”

  2. Israel has an absolute sovereign right to defend itself and its people from Hamas or any other terrorist organization. It is unfortunate that the mentioned clerics don’t seem to realize that Hamas launches rockets from hospitals, schools, etc. using human shields. No cease fire until Hamas is totally destroyed.

    1. Thank you…maybe one of these clerics will set themselves up with a solution for peace…oh, wait..that would be the anti-christ.

    2. Palestinians (both Christian and Muslim) have always had the right to defend themselves, haven’t they? Long before 1948 they had the right. Then, according to some, they apparently lost that right. Why is that?

      Do we base our support for one group or another on the book of Joshua or on the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan?

  3. I’m super sad to see this article calling for a cease fire. I’m sad that you seem to support it, instead of an acknowledgment that both Israelis AND Palestinians are victims of the Palestinian Government who are terrorists who rob heir own people and create an impossible situation for all involved. History shows that appeasing terror and terrorists only leads to more and more death and oppression. Hamas needs to be destroyed for the sake of all people in that region.

  4. its pretty clear who the “terrorists” are, its those who are denying water, food, fuel, medical supplies and electricity to 2.2 million innocent people who are in a walled in refuge camp due to being the wrong ethnic group. also nobody wants to mention what took place before oct 7th. in the preceding 6 months to oct 7th israel killed 262 palastinians, and invaded the alaska ( sp?) mosque several times knowing full well this would inflame the muslims. now we have israel bombing churches and hospitals. this is pure evil and a work of satan. who does israel have a right to morally kill? the people who killed israelis on oct 7th and NO ONE else. lets look at an example: lets say somebody from my neighborhood goes to a mall and kills 100 people, they then come back to thier house, QUESTION, do the police have a right to bomb my neighborhood and kill me and everyone else along with the guy who murdered 100 people? or do the police have the right to only kill the guy who murdered 100 people?

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