20 October 2023, The Tablet

Rising death toll after IDF airstrike hits Gaza church compound

The Israeli Defence Forces said that the church was not the target of the strike on Thursday night.

Rising death toll after IDF airstrike hits Gaza church compound

Rescuers search for survivors after the airstrike on the St Porphyrios compound on Thursday night.
Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem

A Caritas staff member and her family were among at least 17 people killed in an airstrike on a church compound in Gaza on Thursday night.

The strike destroyed a building close to the Greek Orthodox Church of St Porphyrios.  The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem condemned the attack as “a war crime that cannot be ignored”.

It said that many more Christian and Muslim refugees who had been sheltering in the compound were injured.  Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) reported that 15 were trapped under the rubble.

Caritas Internationalis and Caritas MONA (Middle East and North Africa) said they were “devastated to learn of the death of Viola”, a 26-year-old staff member of Caritas Jerusalem who died alongside her husband and infant daughter.

Cafod reported that the staff member’s sister and her two children had been among the casualties.  In a statement, the agency said that five Caritas staff were present in the compound, which was sheltering 411 people.

“We extend our heartfelt condolences to the grieving families and all those injured and affected.”

Archbishop Theodosios of Sebastia from the Jerusalem Patriarchate said on Friday that the number of dead was rising as rescuers found bodies under the rubble.  Don Binder from St George's Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem reported that the death toll was close to 40. 

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew telephoned the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilus II on Friday morning to express his condolences.

The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) issued a statement on Friday saying that the compound had been hit by fighter jets targeting a nearby Hamas command post.

“As a result of the IDF strike, a wall of a church in the area of the centre was damaged,” it said. “We are aware of reports on casualties. The incident is under review. The IDF can unequivocally state that the church was not the target of the strike.”

A separate IDF statement said that it had struck over 100 Hamas targets in Gaza overnight.

The Church of St Porphyrios – one of the oldest in Gaza City – is close to the Holy Family Catholic Church, where ACN said 500 people were sheltering in the compound, and also the Al Ahli Hospital, where hundreds of civilians were killed in an explosion on Tuesday.

Fake reports that St Porphyrios had been destroyed by an Israeli airstrike circulated on social media last week, but church officials refuted the claims.  They have confirmed that the strike on Thursday night hit an ancillary building in the compound, not the church.

Churches and aid agencies demanded an immediate end to hostilities and that Israel allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.

The Orthodox Patriarchate said in a statement that “targeting churches and its affiliated institutions, in addition to the shelters they provide to protect innocent citizens, especially children and women who lost their homes as a result of the Israeli bombing of residential areas during the past thirteen days, constitutes a war crime that cannot be ignored”.

It added that “despite the clear exposure to the facilities and shelters…the churches [are] determined to continue performing [their] religious and moral duty by providing assistance, support and shelter to people who need it”.

In their statement, Caritas Internationalis and Caritas MONA said they condemned “in the strongest possible terms the arbitrary and deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure”.

“We insist that all parties must cease fire, protect civilians, grant immediate, safe, unimpeded humanitarian access, and uphold international law.”

The Revd Jerry Pillay, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, said: “We condemn this unconscionable attack on a sacred compound and call upon the world community to enforce protections in Gaza for sanctuaries of refuge, including hospitals, schools, and houses of worship.” 

Sister Nabila of the Catholic parish in Gaza told ACN that the Israeli government had repeatedly instructed them to evacuate to southern Gaza.

“We will not go,” she said. “People have nothing, not even basic things. Where should we go? To die in the street? We have elderly people, the Missionaries of Charity are also here, with people with multiple disabilities and elderly. Where should we go?”

  Loading ...
Get Instant Access
Subscribe to The Tablet for just £7.99

Subscribe today to take advantage of our introductory offers and enjoy 30 days' access for just £7.99