Pope condemns attack on Gaza parish where Israeli sniper killed 2 Christian women

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Pope Francis speaks to the crowd gathered in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican to pray the Angelus with him Dec. 17, 2023. (CNS photo/Pablo Esparza)

ROME (OSV News) — Following the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem’s denouncement of a series of attacks on Christians in Gaza by Israeli forces Dec. 16, including the killing of a mother and daughter at a Catholic parish, Pope Francis and numerous bishops across the globe also condemned the attack, calling for peace.

In a heartfelt appeal during an Angelus prayer Dec. 17, the pope called for an end to the “terrorism” of war, condemning the previous day’s attack in which an Israel Defense Forces sniper shot and killed Nahida Khalil Anton, and her daughter, Samar Kamal Anton, as they walked to a convent at the Holy Family Parish compound in Gaza. The convent of the Missionaries of Charity also was targeted.

The pope appealed for an end to a war that is ravaging the Holy Land, praying especially for the Catholic parish community in Gaza where “unarmed civilians are the targets of bombings and gunfire.”

The pontiff emphasized that the attack occurred on the premises “where there are no terrorists, but families, children, people who are sick and have disabilities, and nuns.”

“A mother, Mrs. Nahida Khalil Anton, and her daughter, Samar Kamal Anton, were killed, and others were wounded by the shooters while they were going to the bathroom,” Pope Francis said, adding, “Yes, it is war. It is terrorism,” and asking for peace.

Mother and daughter were ‘murdered’

While avoiding language that directly criticized the IDF, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem stated in a Dec. 16 statement that the mother and daughter were “murdered.”

“One was killed as she tried to carry the other to safety,” the patriarchate said, adding that seven more people were shot and wounded while trying to protect others in the church compound.

“No warning was given, no notification was provided,” the statement said. “They were shot in cold blood inside the premises of the parish, where there are no belligerents.”

The Latin Patriarchate also said that the same day, an IDF tank launched a rocket that targeted a Missionaries of Charity convent that is home to “54 disabled persons and is part of the church compound, which was signaled as a place of worship since the beginning of the war.”

After destroying its generator and fuel resources, the patriarchate said, the tank fired two more rockets that “rendered the home uninhabitable,” leaving the displaced persons without a home and “without access to the respirators that some of them need to survive.”

Expressing its condolences to the victims and their families, the Latin Patriarchate called the attack a “senseless tragedy.”

“At the same time, 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 statement said.

U.S. archbishop pleads for peace

Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, pleaded for peace, reacting to the tragic news from Gaza Dec. 16 “with great sadness and horror that we continue to witness the death and destruction of innocent people in the land of Our Lord’s birth.”

“Such violence must not continue,” he appealed, calling for “an immediate cessation of all hostilities, the release of hostages, and for earnest negotiations towards a peaceful resolution of this conflict.”

Recalling the words of the Holy Father, Archbishop Broglio said that “war is never the answer but always a defeat. We plead, ‘peace, please peace!'”

Bishops around the world react

Other bishops across the globe were shocked to receive the news from the Holy Land, with Cardinal Vincent Nichols, president of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales, saying he is “heartbroken” at the information provided by Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. “I have immediately sent a message to His Eminence, expressing my horror at these events and assuring him of the prayers of Catholics in England and Wales,” he said.

“I have twice been warmly welcomed to this parish by its people. They are a remarkable community of faith and genuine service to their neighbors. Together with the dedicated Religious Sisters, they have continued to provide shelter and sustenance to many people during these weeks of warfare. They are a people who yearn for peace,” Cardinal Nichols said in a Dec. 16 statement.

“The information provided by the Cardinal, gives a picture of seemingly deliberate and callous killing by IDF soldiers of innocent civilians: an elderly woman and her daughter in the grounds of a church. This killing has to stop. It can never be justified,” the prelate said, calling on “people of faith and goodwill to continue to pray for an end to this conflict by all sides.”

Father Hugues de Woillemont, secretary general of the French bishops’ conference, called targeting the parish “where the majority of Christian refugee families live, and a convent of nuns” — a “senseless tragedy” in his post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Israeli hostages killed

News of the attack on innocent civilians came a day after Israel faced mounting criticism at home and abroad for its conduct in the country’s war against Hamas after IDF soldiers mistakenly shot and killed three Israeli hostages.

According to a report by NPR, Israeli military officials said two of the three Israelis hostages were shot and killed immediately while the third ran back wounded and cried for help in Hebrew. He died a short time later.

The IDF did not specify why the hostages, who were dressed in civilian clothes and waving a white flag, were identified as a threat.

The Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has drawn criticism for the death of thousands of civilians. However, Israel has blamed Hamas for the death of civilians, claiming that the group uses people as human shields.

The Times of Israel reported Dec. 12 that more than 18,000 Palestinians have died since Israel launched its war Oct. 27. The IDF has said that more than 7,000 of those killed were Hamas militants.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, met Dec. 16 with a delegation of the Arab League and several ambassadors in the region, including the ambassadors of Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt and expressed “the Holy See’s concern about the situation in Israel and Palestine.”

In a statement released after the meeting, the Vatican said Cardinal Parolin called for humanitarian aid access in Gaza and emphasized “Pope Francis’ frequent appeals for a ceasefire.”

He also reiterated “the urgent need to achieve the full implementation of the two-state solution and a special, internationally guaranteed status for the city of Jerusalem, for lasting peace in the region,” the Vatican said.

Junno Arocho Esteves

Junno Arocho Esteves writes for OSV News from Rome.