Hundreds killed in Gaza hospital rocket strike on the day of prayer, fasting for peace

As the mother attempts distraction, Dr. Mohi El Sharqawi examines a child in the pediatric department at the CNEWA-supported al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City in 2015. Gaza Health Ministry said at least 500 people were killed Oct. 17, 2023, in the rocket on the hospital. (OSV News photo/Paul Jeffrey)

JERUSALEM (OSV News) — While Christian faithful across the globe prayed and fasted for peace in the Holy Land, a rocket struck the Christian hospital in Gaza City where hundreds of people were being treated, but also where hundreds were taking shelter. U.S. President Joe Biden is on his way to Israel to make a quick visit Oct. 18.

While Palestinian officials said the hospital was hit in an Israeli strike and had killed some 500 people, the Israel Defense Forces said intelligence showed Palestinian Islamic Jihad group was responsible for the “failed rocket launch” that struck the Anglican-run al-Ahli Arab Hospital, called Baptist Hospital by many media outlets as it was managed between 1954 and 1982 by the Medical Mission of the Southern Baptist Church.

“An analysis of IDF operational systems indicates that a barrage of rockets was fired by terrorists in Gaza, passing in close proximity to the hospital in Gaza at the time it was hit,” IDF posted to its Telegram account.

The hospital was sheltering more than 5,000 people at the time of the strike, said Joseph Hazboun, regional director for CNEWA’s Jerusalem office. CNEWA, Catholic Near East Welfare Association, is a pontifical charity founded by Pope Pius XI in 1926 to help residents of “historic but unstable” lands of the ancient Eastern churches — the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe. The Catholic organization supports the hospital.

“The rocket hit the children’s playground and the courtyard in front of the library, at the back of the hospital,” Hazboun said. “The area hit was the place where most of the psychosocial program activities were organized in recent years.”

“It’s the only Christian hospital in Gaza,” Michael La Civita, director of communications for CNEWA USA, told OSV News hours after the attack. “It’s one of the most important institutions in our network of partners for decades. It’s a significant player in the region.”

La Civita also said the hospital was accommodating “about 5,000 people” who had been seeking refuge there.

“That includes those who were in the hospital itself seeking treatment, the medical staff, as well as folks who were seeking refuge, because it’s in northern Gaza and was under a mandatory evacuation order from Israel,” he said.

La Civita described his reaction as one of “disbelief” and “horror.”

The United Nations World Health Organization issued a statement strongly condemning the attack on the hospital, one of 20 in the north of the Gaza Strip facing evacuation orders from the Israeli military.

“The order for evacuation has been impossible to carry out given the current insecurity, critical condition of many patients, and lack of ambulances, staff, health system bed capacity, and alternative shelter for those displaced,” said the WHO statement.

With the possibility of an Israel land incursion into Gaza still unclear, the majority of the Gazan Christian community has gathered at the Catholic and Greek Orthodox church compounds, and community leaders have been amassing necessary supplies to last for at least a month with support from CNEWA.

“They bought barrels of water for washing and normal use and bought enough drinking water for at least a month. We also supplied canned food, spaghetti, rice,” said Hazboun. Much of the purchases have been bought on credit including hygiene kits and fire extinguishers, he said, and they will need to raise almost $25,000.

A surprise terrorist attack by Hamas on communities along the southern Israeli border with Gaza killed more than 1,400 Israelis. Some 199 Israelis are now being held captive in Gaza and family members fear they may be killed in the Israeli retaliation attacks. More than 2,800 Palestinians in Gaza have died since.

An estimated 1 million people have been displaced in Gaza in one week, a United Nations spokesperson said after Israel also issued warnings to Palestinians in northern Gaza to evacuate to the south as they aim to eliminate Hamas’ leadership.

At least four homes belonging to Christian families have been destroyed in the bombings. Israel says it is bombing Hamas targets, and has warned civilians in the area to move by dropping pamphlets from the air. As of Oct. 16, Hamas had lobbed more than 6,000 missiles into Israel as well, and though Israel’s defensive system known as the Iron Dome has intercepted most of them, some have landed on buildings killing several Israelis.

The majority of Christians who live in Gaza City in northern Gaza have chosen to seek shelter at the churches as they feel protected by Jesus there, said Gaza Holy Family Parish priest Father Gabriel Romaneli in a written WhatsApp response to OSV News. The priest found himself stranded in Bethlehem and unable to return to Gaza following the Hamas attack.

CNEWA’s Hazboun noted that the IDF is aware of the geographical coordinates of the Christian institutions.

“They don’t know where to flee to because they say there is no safe place. The danger of death is very real in all of Gaza Strip these days,” Father Romaneli said. “Let’s pray that God grants the gift of peace, to Israel, Palestine and the whole world.”

Communication with those in Gaza directly has been difficult, and OSV News was unable to reach community leaders or religious there for direct comment.

Though initially Israel cut off all fuel, electricity and water to Gaza, they have allowed for a humanitarian corridor so Palestinians can move south and have allowed for access to water.

Egypt has not yet opened its Rafah crossing in the south of Gaza for local residents and foreign nationals wanting to leave. Some 60 Brazilian laypeople who had been visiting Gaza had taken shelter with the Rosary Sisters, but moved to the church compound following an Israeli bombing and are now awaiting for coordination to be able to leave through the Rafah crossing, which Egypt is delaying opening for fear of having to absorb millions of Gazans attempting to escape.

Human rights groups have said the forced evacuation and bombings could constitute a war crime, while Israelis say the terrorist attack which killed civilians was also tantamount to war crimes.

Pope Francis called the assistant parish priest, Father Yusuf Assad, who is with the parishioners in the Holy Family parish, and they asked him to pray for peace in Gaza and for the people who are suffering. They hold nightly prayers to sustain the people who have sought safety with them.

Along with his call for an international day of prayer and fasting on Oct. 17, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch, issued a special message for the Christian youth urging them also to pray, noting that while the prayer may not change reality immediately, it did “spark a light.” He also took part in a coordination meeting for Christian nongovernmental organizations to set up relief funds for Gaza.

Jerusalem churches held prayers for peace throughout the day Oct. 17. Abbot Nikodemus Schnabel led the monks and students at the Benedictine Dormition Abbey in a 24-hour recitation of the 150 psalms. These were uniting prayers recited by all Christians and Jews, as well similar to prayers in the Quran, he said.

“The emotions contained in the psalms, the fears and lamentations, the anger and sadness, but also the longing and hope, ultimately the gratitude in God are to be spoken out loud in this way, and carried before the cross on behalf of so many people especially in this country,” he said. “There are new wounds, new blood, new hate going into a deeper dimension.”

He normally enjoyed giving interviews and speaking his mind, he said, but he now was at a loss for words and shocked at the “enormous crime” committed by slaughtering civilians in Israel’s south, noting that some of those murdered were migrant workers including Filipinos and Thai nationals.

At the Franciscan St. Saviour Monastery, Father Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land, joined in noon prayer with the friars.

Samy Helou, 48, the head of the monastery’s IT department who came to the prayer, said that when missiles fall in the Tel Aviv area he calls his Jewish Israeli friends to make sure they are safe. He has even invited them to come to his house in Jerusalem.

“I plead so my God will open hearts and remove hate from this world,” he said, despite differences in political and religious beliefs. “People don’t deserve to die, and there should only be justice and peace for all.”

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