LONDON (RNS) — Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby described reports of hundreds of deaths after an attack on an Anglican hospital in Gaza on Tuesday (Oct. 17) as an “appalling and devastating loss of innocent lives.” The archbishop spoke as news emerged of the rocket attack on al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, that has left as many as 500 people dead and others injured, according to multiple reports.
“It is unconscionable that aid is being prevented from reaching children and adults who are not combatants in this war,” said Welby, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion and primate of the Church of England, in a statement Wednesday morning after more news of the attack. “It is indefensible that hospitals, schools and refugee camps are being struck.”
The Associated Press confirmed that video footage showed fire engulfing the hospital and bodies scattered across the grounds, including those of children.
The al-Ahli hospital in northern Gaza was not only being used by medics and patients but was packed with Palestinians seeking shelter after evacuation orders from Israel. The rocket attack follows 10 days of conflict between Israel and Hamas after the Oct. 7 assault by Hamas militants on Jewish settlements, in which 1,400 Israelis died and 200 people were taken hostage. Palestinian officials reported Tuesday that more than 2,800 Palestinians have been killed and 10,000 others have been wounded in the days since.
The Israeli military has denied the strike was theirs, accusing Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a militant group allied with Hamas, of launching a rocket that malfunctioned and hit the hospital. Early U.S. intelligence Wednesday suggested the rocket causing the blast was fired from a Palestinian fighter position.
In Wednesday’s statement, Welby urged restraint in apportioning blame until the facts are clear and said the attack “violates the sanctity and dignity of human life.”
The archbishop went on to condemn the “evil and heinous” Oct. 7 attack by Hamas as a crime against God and humanity. He backed Israel’s right to defend itself and described as “an outrage” that Hamas is still holding hostages.
But he also warned that Israel’s actions must be proportionate and was critical of its bombing campaign on the heavily populated Gaza Strip. It is “causing massive civilian casualties and suffering,” he said.
“The people of Gaza are running out of water, food, medical supplies and places of refuge,” he continued.
Anglican Archbishop Hosam Naoum, who leads the Anglican province that includes the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, also denounced the attack on the hospital during a livestreamed news conference Wednesday. Naoum was flanked by the patriarchs, or heads of the churches, in the Holy Land, who put out a joint statement “mourning civilian victims of the massacre in Gaza and extending solidarity to the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem.”
“We regard this as a crime against humanity and we call upon all sides, that this war must come to an end,” said Naoum, describing a scene of Palestinians, who had sought shelter at the hospital, gathered in the courtyard singing songs of peace before the missile hit.
The hospital attack has raised tensions even further in Israel and Gaza, and caused several Arab leaders, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, to pull out of talks with President Joe Biden during the U.S. leader’s trip to the region for emergency diplomatic efforts. Biden met with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday and assured him that “Based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it (the rocket strike at the hospital) was done by the other team, not you.”
Biden announced that Israel had agreed to let aid into Gaza from Egypt, which the office of Netanyahu confirmed, stipulating the aid could only be food, water and medicine for the civilian population.
Pope Francis also spoke out after the attack on the al-Ahli hospital, saying: “The situation in Gaza is desperate. Please let everything be done to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. The possible widening of the conflict is disturbing. Let the weapons be silenced.”
Among the first to denounce the attack was Richard Sewell, dean of the Anglican St. George’s College, in Jerusalem. “Disaster: our hospital, Ahli Arab hospital has taken a direct hit from an Israeli missile,” he posted on X, formerly Twitter, before disputes over the origins of the missile emerged.
“This is deliberate killing of vulnerable civilians. The bombs must stop now. There can be no possible justification for this.”
Welby had previously urged that the Israelis reverse their demand for hospitals in Gaza to be evacuated. “The seriously ill and injured patients at the Anglican-run Ahli Hospital — and other healthcare facilities in northern Gaza — cannot be safely evacuated,” he warned in a statement on Sunday. “They are running low on medical supplies. They are facing catastrophe.
“I appeal for the evacuation order on hospitals in northern Gaza to be reversed — and for health facilities, health workers, patients and civilians to be protected,” he said.
On Tuesday evening, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, issued a statement urging prayer after the attack on the hospital.
“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. They were passionately committed to anyone who had need,” Curry said in his statement.
In the days since the conflict began, American Episcopal leaders have been encouraging people to donate to the work of al-Ahli Hospital through the American Friends of the Diocese of Jerusalem. In an Oct. 15 statement, bishops of the Diocese of New York praised the work of the hospital and of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem as without “a political agenda” and in service to “Christian, Jew and Muslim alike through hospitals and schools and shelters, and at no cost.”
According to the hospital’s website, it provided a free community clinic, another for underweight and malnourished children, burn treatment and psycho-social support for children and their caregivers suffering trauma from war and the ongoing blockade of Gaza. It is the oldest hospital in Gaza, founded in 1882, and its community care clinic was the only free health care available to people in Gaza. It treated patients regardless of faith or nationality.
This is the second time in four days the hospital has been hit. On Saturday, the Diagnostic Cancer Treatment Center of the hospital was hit by an Israeli rocket. Two upper floors of the center, which houses the ultrasound and mammography wards, were severely damaged. Four hospital staff members were injured in that blast and are receiving treatment for their wounds.
“The Diagnostic Centre is the Crown Jewel of Ahli Hospital, providing cancer diagnosis as a prelude to various treatment options both at Ahli and in other facilities,” Naoum, the Anglican archbishop of Jerusalem, told the Anglican Communion News Service at the time. “Next month, we were due to open a new chemotherapy centre there in partnership with Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives — a principal reason for our visit to the hospital last week.”
This story has been updated with new statements from Welby and other church leaders, as well as new information regarding U.S. intelligence efforts.