Thursday, February 08, 2024

Catholic bishop in the Holy Land reveals the war’s devastating impact on Christians

Featured Image

“She was a former teacher of music. When she was killed by a sniper she was 80 years old. She left the parish compound during [the] curfew imposed on that area. She was old, and she was unaware of this. So she left the compound to go to her house to see what happened – if it was destroyed. While she was walking, she was killed by an Israeli sniper. No one could go to help her because snipers continued to shoot. She died from bleeding.”  

This is how Monsignor William Shomali, 73, the Palestinian-born auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, described the death of 84-year-old Ilham Farah to LifeSiteNews in this exclusive interview from Jerusalem, conducted by video. 

She was killed, as Shomali related, after leaving the parish compound in which over six hundred people continue to shelter.  

Yet even this sacred site is no sanctuary from Israeli sniper fire. Two women, known personally by Shomali, were shot dead whilst inside the compound itself in December.  

Shomali recounted their fates.  

“I know personally the two ladies from the Anton family who were killed by another sniper,” Shomali told LifeSiteNews. “The first was 70 years old. She was going to the bathroom. She was seen by a sniper and shot.” 

This was Nahida Anton, pictured above with her daughter Samar.   

“While she was bleeding her family members were close because it happened in the school compound. And the school is part of the church compound. Her family members wanted to help her. They couldn’t because of continuous shooting, but her daughter wanted to help her. She joined her. She was shot and she was killed immediately,” Shomali related. 

“They couldn’t be helped – except after two or three hours, when the snipers disappeared,” he added.  

Shomali spoke of the distress of the remaining family members and faithful, who were unable to render any aid due to the continuing danger from sniper fire.  

“The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem protested then,” Shomali recalled, referring to the public statement released by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

“Around noon today (16th December 2023) a sniper of the IDF murdered two Christian women inside the Holy Family Parish in Gaza, where the majority of the Christian families has [sic] taken refuge since the start of the war,”  the statement, which LifeSiteNews reported on at the time, read. 

“They were shot in cold blood, inside the premises of the parish,” the statement added.  

The statement had also noted that Israeli tanks had shelled the Convent of the Sisters of Mother Theresa three times, destroying part of the building. 54 disabled persons – including children – cared for by the sisters were made homeless as a result.

As the Patriarchate’s statement had noted, the disabled were left “with no access to the respirators that some of them needed to survive.”

An additional three people were slightly wounded in the compound due to “heavy bombing in the area,” the statement had added. 

LifeSiteNews asked Monsignor whether the Israelis had given any guarantees of safety following the shootings. 

“They gave guarantees before the shooting,” he replied.   

So how could two women be shot dead inside the compound? Shomali suggests this was the “work of a sniper – who maybe has misunderstood the instructions of his officers.” 

Giving further context, Shomali explained:

The instructions were that during curfew, no one should move. But this lady was moving within the compound of the church going to the restroom. So he maybe he has misunderstood the instructions – and killed.

Has there been any apology from the Israeli authorities? 

“No official apology. We didn’t receive any apology for the killing of the two ladies,” Shomali told LifeSiteNews.  

Moreover, the Israeli Embassy to the Holy See denied responsibility for their deaths.  

“However, on the following day, IDF put an amount of food and water in front of the main gate of the parish compound as a gesture of good will,” Shomali stated. 

The Israeli army shooting unarmed people is not an unprecedented event. Shomali recounted a widely-publicized case in which the IDF – the Israeli army – shot three of its own citizens. 

 “When three Israeli hostages came out from a tunnel raising white flag and asking for help in Hebrew from the soldiers – the soldiers thought they were fake Hamas members who speak Hebrew – so they killed them. So Israelis killed Israelis with friendly fire,” recalled the monsignor. 

Shomali thinks this instance indicates a wider practice of killing through “misunderstanding.” 

“So I can imagine also that these soldiers misunderstood their instructions,” he explained. 

The compound of the parish of the Holy Family is currently sheltering over six hundred people. Communicating with them is difficult. After the war moved to the south of Gaza, with Holy Family parish being to the north, the parish remained isolated and in dire need of food, water and fuel.  

“Communicating with Gaza is possible sometimes through telephone. This allows us to follow the news of our Holy Family parish in Gaza. When it is hard to call we leave a voice message on whatsup and they answer when they have the chance,” explained Shomali. 

How are they doing? 

“They are a little bit more quiet than before because the war is more in the south. They have some food still,” Shomali said. 

LifeSiteNews was told that the Patriarchate had stocked up on supplies for the parish at the beginning of the war, but supplies are running low, and they have run out of gas for cooking and heating. 

Food prices have multiplied within Gaza since the start of the conflict. The price of eggs, for example, has increased by a factor of eight to ten times. Whatever food is available to the isolated parish comes at a high cost.  

“They buy [food] at a high a very high price. They cook for the people who are inside the parish – 660 people not every day but every other day,” Shomali explained. 

Why do they only cook every other day?  

“Fuel and gas are not allowed to be introduced into [the area] – Gaza except for hospitals,” Shomali outlined, explaining, “Because they have no gas, people use fire for cooking. As for water, they are fortunate to have a well which continues to provide them with water since the beginning of the war. Without this providential well, they would not have survived. The fact that the well is still generous, is considered by many as a miracle. But this water is not good for drinking” 

So how do they drink?  

“They boil the water in order to make it less harmful,” said the monsignor.  

The Latin Patriarchate has many other parishes in the Holy Land and elsewhere, with Shomali himself based in Jerusalem. When asked how these parishes were faring, he said, “Our other parishes in the West Bank are accessible with great difficulties, because of the many checkpoints, which prevent people from the villages and Palestinian towns to come to Jerusalem.” 

With no United Nations funding, the Patriarchate relies in ordinary times on Catholic charities to provide the money to pay for schooling, the support of the sick and the wider needs of the diocese. 

“Religious tourism has dropped to zero,” said Shomali. “How can they make up the millions that have been lost in income?” 

Now, with the war, incomes have diminished tremendously. With the few remaining Christians in the Holy Land working mainly in tourism, the young who are underemployed are tempted to emigrate.

This temptation is not new.  

“There are already more than one million expatriate Christians from the Holy Land living in North America, Canada, Australia, South America, mainly in Chile in which there is a community of 400,000,” Shomali explained.  

While the situation is already dire, the burden has only just begun.

“The needs for after the war are much more, because most of our parishioners lost their homes. The houses of the majority of our Christians are destroyed. In the aftermath of the war, people will go back to razed houses,” lamented the prelate.  

“So what to do? Maybe the United Nations will help in reconstruction, USAID or others. We have to help as much as we can,” he added.

Shomali explained that it is not just Catholics in need of this type of aid, but many different populations within the embattled region. This includes the Muslim population, who Shomali said Christians feel obligated to take care of by giving food to those without.

“In the Holy Family compound, over 650 are Christians living in our parish, and 250 in the Greek Orthodox parish compound. Those in our parish are not all Catholics, they are all Christians. Many of them are Orthodox,” Shomali related. 

Shomali noted that the two last humanitarian containers of aid arrived by military helicopters sent by the Jordanian government. On Christmas Eve, 2023, a Jordanian helicopter dropped two tons of food in the Holy Family compound.  

“Jordan is the only country which can send humanitarian and medical help to Gaza through airoplanes,” explained Shomali. 

Why could the aid not be driven in?  

“Because cars cannot reach the parish, all the roads are destroyed,” he answered. 

So how is life in Jerusalem now? 

“Life in Jerusalem seems more normal than other cities of the West Bank. We did not hear these last months about spitting on clergy by some ultra-Orthodox Jews as happened in the past,” Shomali said.

To give wider context to Shomali’s statement regarding spitting, in October of last year it was reported that Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said spitting on Christians “is not a crime.” In the past, he has described spitting on Christians as an “old Jewish tradition” – a statement echoed by a Zionist settler responding to a viral video of Jews spitting on a Christian woman. 

“The custom of spitting near churches or monasteries is an ancient Jewish tradition,” said the activist Zionist settler Elisha Yered. 

Yet spitting on Christians continues, and seems to be an established tradition, as CNN reported on October 4, 2023:

Father Matteo, a priest in the Old City, told CNN  there were sometimes 10 incidents of spitting a day near his monastery along the Via Dolorosa, the path that Christians believe Jesus walked to his crucifixion, with people calling it “an impure place.

Shomali says the treatment of Catholics by Hamas in Gaza included proselytism or attempts to convert Christians to Islam, and public insistence on dress codes of modesty for women.  

“There have been difficulties – but no real persecution” under Hamas, Shomali related.

The situation in the West Bank, however, is better: “We have 10 municipalities in the West Bank having a Christian mayor at the top of the municipality, although the majority of people may not be Christian, like in Bethlehem, or Ramallah for example. The mayor of Bethlehem is Christian by respect to the Christian character of the city.”  

Happily, Shomali said, “Relations between Christians and Muslims in the West Bank are almost normal. Some difficulties exist because of the relation between majority and minority as happens in many parts of the world. But there is no persecution.” 

This gives some hope, as, said Shomali, does the judgement of the International Court of Justice, which ordered Israel to avoid acts of genocide whilst investigating that charge. On this, Shomali said:

It is a fair verdict, because it asks Israel to avoid to avoid any gesture, which may cause a genocide, and asked Israel to let people of Gaza to return back to their homes.

More than one million are now displaced. Being homeless in winter is very hard to tolerate. The end of the war was not explicitly requested by the High Court of Justice. But it is meant implicitly. If killing should be avoided, and if displaced people should return to the north, and if hostages should be sent back to Israel, it means a ceasefire and the end of the war.

Monsignor stressed that an end to the war was desirable for all, regardless of their religion. 

“Not only Palestinians request that but also many Israelis, because this war caused a lot of damage, not only to Palestinians, but also to Israelis,” Shomali said.

He said this is what he and the faithful pray for: peace. 

“This is what we pray for. After the war, we have to take care of all the tragedies that were caused by this war, like reconstructing destroyed houses, helping in restoring schools, hospitals and the destroyed infrastructure,” said the monsignor. 

“There is a lot a lot, a lot of work, we need billions of dollars to reconstruct a destroyed district, like Gaza today,” he added.  

On the day the ICJ gave its order, the United States responded, with President Joe Biden suspending any further aid to the United Nations Relief and Welfare Authority (UNRWA), the UN agency in which many Gazans depend on for food, water, education and employment.  

Is it true, as Biden alleges, that UNWRA is an arm of Hamas?

“This assertion is strong and should be proven,” said Shomali. 

“It is Israel who asserted that some employees of UNWRA were from Hamas,” he continued, noting “130 workers from UNRWA have already been killed in the war.”

So what does UNRWA do? Is it a terror group? 

 “UNWRA, in Gaza, helps Palestinian refugees in schooling, medical care and distributing help,” said the monsignor. 

Christian Zionists in the U.S. have demanded UNWRA be “permanently defunded” on the basis of the Israeli allegations 

Biden suspended funding from the U.S. following information received from Israel. The news in the Jerusalem Post on January 27 read:

On Friday, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said that Israel had provided UNRWA with information about the alleged involvement of some of the organization’s employees in the October 7 massacre.

In response, Shomali argued, “Saying that some members of UNWRA employees were Hamas – I say it should be proven legally. Any person involved should be punished individually, avoiding any collective punishment.” 

“From another side, people should be protected by ‘the presumption of innocence,’ which means that a person is innocent until proven guilty. This right protects people against arbitrary arrest or condemnation,” he added.