19 December 2023, The Tablet

Outrage at ‘cold-blooded’ shootings in Gaza’s Catholic parish

“We cannot but express that we are at a loss to comprehend how such an attack could be carried out,” said the Latin Patriarchate.

Outrage at ‘cold-blooded’ shootings in Gaza’s Catholic parish

A Palestinian child amid debris after an Israeli air strike on a house in the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on 15 December, when two women were shot dead in the Holy Family parish compound.
DPA Picture Alliance/Alamy

Two women were shot dead in the compound of Gaza’s Catholic parish last Saturday.

In a statement issued that afternoon, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said that a mother and daughter, Nahida and Samar Khalil Anton, were shot by Israel Defence Force (IDF) troops while walking to the convent beside the Church of the Holy Family.

“One was killed as she tried to carry the other to safety,” it 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 there are no belligerents.”

There are roughly 500 people, the remnants of Gaza’s Christian community, sheltering in the compound.

The patriarchate also said that IDF tanks had fired rockets at the Missionaries of Charity convent in the compound, which housed 54 disabled people, rendering it “uninhabitable”.  The building’s generator, solar panels and water tanks were destroyed.

“We cannot but express that we are at a loss to comprehend how such an attack could be carried out, even more so as the whole church prepares for Christmas,” the patriarchate said. Without power, the parish celebrated Mass by candlelight.

The British MP Layla Moran, who has relatives sheltering in the church, wrote on social media that there were “snipers at every window pointing into the church” who were shooting at anybody who tried to leave.  The IDF did not have any immediate comment.

The IDF said that it had conducted a review of the incident and found no evidence of an attack on the church, insisting that it “does not target civilians, no matter their religion”.

It said that parish representative had contacted it on Saturday but “no reports of a hit on the church, nor civilians being injured or killed, were raised”.

Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry said that 18,800 Palestinians have been killed there since 7 October and more than 51,000 wounded.

In its Christmas message, issued in the wake of the attack on the Holy Family compound, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land said that “more Palestinian children have been killed in the last two months than in the preceding two years of war in all of the conflicts worldwide”.

“The war has taken an enormous toll on an entire generation of our children, who live in daily fear for themselves and their families,” the message said.

“We lament the loss of life, fear for the wounded who have little access to medical care, and are anguished for the homeless.”

The commission asked “all those who celebrate Christmas” to pray “for peace in Bethlehem, in Gaza and all over the Holy Land”.

“We pray for a permanent ceasefire and for the dawning of a time of dialogue instead of oppression, of justice instead of imposed solutions, of living together instead of the dream of getting rid of one another.”

Pope Francis condemned the attack on the parish in an address on Sunday.  “There aren't terrorists there, but sick people, religious sisters...yes, it's war, it's terrorism,” he said, appealing for an end to the war.

As is tradition on Gaudete Sunday, Pope Francis blessed the Bambinelli statues of Baby Jesus for the children of Rome, imploring them to “pray in front of the crib, for the little children who will have a difficult Christmas this year, in places of war, in refugee camps, and in situations of great misery”.

The previous day, he had called on Christians to turn their thoughts and prayers this Christmas to the Holy Land.  

He said that “we know the situation, caused by the war, the consequence of a conflict that has lasted for decades”, adding that for Palestinians living in Bethlehem this Christmas will be marked by suffering and grieving, with no pilgrims and celebrations.  Israeli authorities have detained 4,540 Palestinians in the West Bank since the conflict began.

“We don't want to leave them alone”, said Francis, calling for prayers and support.

The parish priest of Gaza, Fr Gabriel Romanelli, told Vatican News that the victims of the shooting “were very talented people”.

“Nahida was the mother of a large family, with many children, almost all married... Among the unmarried children was Samar, the woman who was killed. Samar was the cook at the Convent of the Sisters of Mother Teresa. Both, mother and daughter, participated in all activities.”

He added that “the whole Anton family, is very connected to the church”.

“Let us continue to pray that all this ends, this absurdity,” he said. “As we have repeated so many times, a month of war, an hour of war, a minute of war, only increases the number of victims and deprives people of peace, of daily life.”

Reports on Monday said that a small shipment of food had reached the churches in Gaza early that morning, the first aid to reach the area after previous convoys were halted by intense fighting.

The Israeli government invited a Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop to hold an interfaith conference on Monday.

Dr Elias Chacour, the former Archbishop of Acre, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee, hosted the Peace and Justice conference at the invitation of the Christianity section of the religious affairs office of the Israeli Department of the Interior. 

It took place at the Mar Elias colleges in northern Israel, which educate Muslims, Christians and Druze students, and was open to anyone “affected by the current lack of peace and justice”. It included speeches, question-and-answer sessions and a tour of the school to highlight its practical work to build peace. More than 80 members of the teaching staff and senior students were also available for questions. 

Government officials had asked Archbishop Chacour if he would prefer not to have Jews present, but he said: “Of course, I want them present, we have to know what they are thinking. To progress in peace making with justice it is imperative to listen to all sides involved.”

In a letter to supporters of his colleges in early October, the archbishop said that both Palestinians and Israelis had “adopted [a] criminal approach to human difficulties and problems”.

He said that students and staff had donated blood, “not for the Jewish wounded people, neither for the Palestinian victims in Gaza, but we donate blood for any human being needing our blood to survive”.

On 14 December, protesters in Tel Aviv blocked the city’s main thoroughfare calling for the safe return of the 130 hostages still held by Hamas, after IDF troops shot dead three hostages as they came towards them with a white flag.

The same day, an IDF strike killed a Palestinian journalist in the south of Gaza.

There were more international calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and better use of diplomatic channels.  On the eighth night of Hanukkah, Jewish Voice of Peace in the US shut down eight bridges and highways in eight cities to protest the government’s military support for Israel.

Pax Christi USA joined a Global Day of Action on 18 December calling for a ceasefire, while Pax Christi USA, Franciscan Action Network, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Justice Team, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, and other faith groups urged supporters to call the White House on 20 December to demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

In their Christmas message, titled “May we make peace!”, European bishops said that “in a world often marked by violence and division, the birth of Christ is a beacon of resilient hope”.

  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