[Episcopal News Service] Anglican Archbishop Hosam Naoum on Oct. 18 decried the blast that reportedly killed hundreds at Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza as a “crime against humanity,” and he called for warring parties on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to bring an end to the violence plaguing the Holy Land.
Naoum, who leads the Anglican province that includes the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, said many Palestinians had come to the Anglican-run hospital seeking a safe haven from the hostilities around them. Groups were gathered Oct. 17 in the courtyard singing songs calling for peace, he said. Soon after, the courtyard was decimated by an apparent rocket blast.
The number of casualties and extent of the damage have been hard to verify so far, and Palestinian and Israeli officials have traded blame since the explosion. U.S. officials said Oct. 18 they agreed with Israel: Initial evidence, they said, suggests it was an errant Palestinian rocket, not part of the barrage of rockets Israel has fired into in Gaza targeting Hamas since the militant group’s Oct. 7 cross-border attack. Last week, another part of the hospital complex was damaged by an airstrike.
“We stand as churches united together in condemning this dreadful and devastating massacre,” Naoum said in a news conference that was livestreamed on Facebook. He was joined by other heads of the 13 Christian denominations in the Holy Land, known as the patriarchs. “We regard this as a crime against humanity and we call upon all sides, that this war must come to an end.”
Ahli is one of 22 hospitals in northern Gaza that have been struggling to remain open and respond to the growing humanitarian crisis. The Palestinian territory, which has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007, now faces renewed Israeli airstrikes and Israel’s impending military attack on Hamas, which controls Gaza. Israel declared war on Hamas after it waged a surprise land, sea and air attack on Israeli soil Oct. 7, massacring hundreds of Israeli civilians. As many as 200 more were taken hostage by Hamas, which the United States has labeled a terrorist organization.
The strike that hit the Ahli hospital on Oct. 17 added to already volatile conditions in northern Gaza, which Israel had ordered evacuated as it positioned Israeli soldiers on the border. Palestinian officials say the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza have killed thousands of Palestinians there, though the Israeli military denied that one of its rockets hit the Ahli hospital. Its evidence suggested a Hamas ally, Islamic Jihad, was to blame for the misfired rocket. Islamic Jihad has issued its own denial.
U.S. President Joe Biden, who traveled to Israel on Oct. 18 in a show of support for the country, endorsed Israel’s version of events, saying “data I was shown by my Defense Department” backs it up.
Gazans initially estimated a death toll in the hundreds. As day broke Oct. 18, Palestinians were becoming aware of the full scope of the carnage. “There are still lots of bodies they haven’t yet collected,” a paramedic told The New York Times. “There are too many bodies.”
Naoum said the hospital is closed while authorities tend to the dead and injured, assess the damage and plan next steps.
“We are determined to keep our institutions open, to keep our place of worship, our churches, open and as places of sanctuary, especially to those who are disadvantaged, especially to those who are vulnerable.”
Gaza, with about 2.3 million people confined to about 140 square miles, is one of the most densely populated places in the world, and many of its residents had been sheltering around the hospitals seeking safety from Israeli airstrikes since Oct. 7.
When asked by a reporter, Naoum declined to speculate on who was behind the explosion at the Ahli hospital, but he said Palestinians in Gaza are now living under constant threat of the airstrikes – in their homes, in the streets and even at hospitals. “We hope that in the end people will come to the conclusion that enough with this war and enough with the lives that have been lost on every side,” he said.
The hospital’s cancer unit had sustained damage from a previous strike. Four staff members were injured in the Oct. 14 strike, according to AFEDJ. An earlier strike in Gaza destroyed the house of the hospital’s medical director.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby released a written statement on Oct. 18 condemning the most recent attack on the hospital. “This atrocity violates the sanctity and dignity of human life,” Welby said, and while facts about the blast are still in dispute, “it is a violation of humanitarian law, which is clear that hospitals, doctors and patients must be protected.”
“The evil and heinous terror attacks by Hamas on people in Israel were crimes against God and humanity,” Welby continued. “Israel has a legitimate right and duty to defend itself, and to pursue a proportionate and discriminate response to establish its security. The rules of war are there to safeguard civilians and the value of every human life. They must be upheld to the highest degree possible amidst the chaos of conflict, otherwise the cycle of violence will continue for generations to come.”
The strike on the Ahli hospital occurred on a global day of prayer and fasting that was called by the Christian heads of churches in the Holy Land, including the Anglican province. After news of the hospital blast, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry urged Episcopalians to pray for all those harmed or killed in the rapidly evolving conflict.
Curry’s written statement offered a personal lament for the Ahli hospital, noting his visit to Gaza during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land five years ago. “My heart aches when I remember visiting al-Ahli hospital in 2018 during Holy Week to meet the medical teams and all the people of that remarkable ministry,” Curry said. “They were passionately committed to anyone who had need.”
Episcopal leaders also are encouraging Episcopalians to donate to American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, or AFEDJ, which supports the Ahli hospital.
“We are shocked, outraged, and devastated,” Churches for Middle East Peace said in a statement released late Oct. 17. The Episcopal Church is a founding member. “Our hearts are deeply grieved at hearing this news. We express our deepest condolences and ask that the Lord be with the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, staff, and all people affected by the bombing of Al Ahli Hospital.”
– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.