Palestinians evacuate following an Israeli airstrike on Gaza
Palestinians evacuate following an Israeli airstrike on the Sousi mosque in Gaza City on October 9, 2023.
(Photo: Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images)

Church of England Joins Call for Cease-Fire in Gaza, Breaking With UK Government

The archbishop of Canterbury joined a statement of church leaders in occupied East Jerusalem following a deadly airstrike on an ancient church in Gaza.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the leader of the Church of England, opened what one outlet called an "unprecedented rift" between the British government and the church on Sunday as he signed onto a statement from religious leaders in Jerusalem that demanded an "immediate humanitarian cease-fire" in Gaza and unequivocally condemned Israel's most recent airstrikes in the blockaded enclave.

The archbishop spoke out against Israel's assault on Gaza—which has so far killed at least 5,087 Palestinians, nearly half of them children—as British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was among several Western leaders to join U.S. President Joe Biden in a statement reiterating their support for Israel's "right to defend itself against terrorism" and calling on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to follow international humanitarian law.

The U.S. and its allies have backed Israel's onslaught following Hamas' attack on the country on October 7, with Biden requesting $14 billion in military aid last week and Sunak deploying tanks, ships, and surveillance assets to the IDF.

The statement signed by Welby and led by the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem followed several Israeli airstrikes at the Orthodox Church compound of Saint Porphyrios in Gaza last Thursday. At least 500 people had taken refuge at the church, and Palestinian health officials said at least 18 people, including nine children, were killed.

"These blasts led to the sudden and catastrophic collapse of two church halls around the scores of refugees, including women and children, sleeping within," said Welby and the other church leaders in the statement. "Dozens found themselves instantly crushed beneath the rubble. Many were injured, some severely... In condemning this attack against a sacred place of refuge, we cannot ignore that this is but the latest instance of innocent civilians being injured or killed as a result of missile strikes against other shelters of last resort."

The church officials called on "the international community to immediately enforce protections in Gaza for Sanctuaries of Refuge, such as hospitals, schools, and houses of worship."

"And we call for 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," they continued.

The statement mirrored those of a number of United Nations agencies on Saturday and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres last week, along with the calls of human rights organizations and a growing number of progressive lawmakers in the United States.

Also on Saturday, roughly 100,000 people marched through London to demand a cessation of Israel's bombardment.

On Sunday, Welby delivered a sermon to 150 worshipers at Saint George's Anglican Cathedral in occupied East Jerusalem, condemning both the bombing of Gaza and attacks in the West Bank by Israeli settlers, who have killed at least 61 Palestinian people in the area since October 7.

"Everyone knows how difficult and chaotic wars are," Welby told Middle East Eye after the service. "The essential is that the principals of just fighting a war and the discrimination principle between combatants and non-combatants is held to really, really strictly."

"All bombings of civilians [are] wrong," he added.

Last week, Welby condemned Israel's evacuation order pertaining to healthcare facilities in northern Gaza.

"The evil and barbaric terror attacks on Israelis by Hamas were a blasphemous outrage," said Welby. "But the civilians of Gaza are not responsible for the crimes of Hamas."

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