LONDON (RNS) — 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. Who was responsible for the attack on the hospital is disputed, with evidence indicating it was a misfired Hamas rocket.
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.
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 (formerly Twitter) 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.
“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.