Here’s What We Know About Israel And The Holy Family Catholic Parish In Gaza

Elias Atienza | Senior Reporter

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem accused the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) of murdering two women at the Holy Family Catholic Parish in Gaza and firing on a convent in a Dec. 16 statement.

The statement states that “Nahida and her daughter Samar were shot and killed by an IDF sniper as they walked to the Sister’s Convent.”  The statement also alleges that seven other people were shot without warning.

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

The statement also alleges that that rocket fire from an IDF tank destroyed a generator and “fuel resources.” It also states the convent was hit by more rocket fire from the IDF.

“Two more rockets, fired by an IDF tank, targeted the same Convent and rendered the home inhabitable. The 54 disabled persons are currently displaced and without access to the respirators that some of them need to survive,” the statement says.

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem is the “particular catholic Church whose territory includes Cyprus, Jordan, Israel and Palestine,” according to its website.  The Holy Family Catholic Parish is the only Catholic parish in all of Gaza, according to the Catholic News Agency. The outlet reported in October 2023 that several hundred people had taken shelter there since the Israeli campaign started after the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks by Hamas.

Vatican News, the official news site of the Holy See, reported that the “ongoing attack was reportedly justified by Israelis who claimed the presence of a rocket launcher in the parish. Despite the Patriarchate’s intervention, the operation has not been halted. Israeli soldiers reportedly fired towards the parish compound and the civilians sheltering in the building.”

The Washington Post reported Dec. 16 that an aid worker said a colleague was hit by shrapnel in her legs during one of the alleged incidents. A doctor sheltering at the church removed the shrapnel from one leg, but was unable to remove shrapnel from the other, according to the outlet.

“I am wondering if the accusations will be ‘these were Catholic branch of Hamas!’ Not only the families, there are 50 kids with physical and mental disabilities that sisters are nursing,” the aid worker told the Washington Post via WhatsApp message.

“We quickly went out and saw my sister Samar lying face down after she was targeted by a sniper’s bullet, hitting her in the area under her ear. My mother was lying on her back, meters away. When we saw Samar, we all rushed to save her, and snipers opened fire on us, wounding my two children,” Issa Antoun, whose mother and sister were killed in the incident, told the Washington Post Dec. 18.

UK Member of Parliament Layla Moran told BBC News that relatives of hers were sheltering at the church and “days from dying” due to a lack of food and water. The family says that at least two people, besides the two people named in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem’s statement, have been killed at the church, according to the outlet.

A IDF spokesperson issued statement on Dec. 17 to Check Your Fact, saying “it was found that an incident took place during yesterday afternoon (Saturday) in another area in Gaza, near the Latin Church in the Shejayia area.”

“An initial review suggests that IDF troops, who were operating against Hamas terrorists in the area, operated against a threat that they identified in the area of the church. The IDF is conducting a thorough review of the incident,” the IDF spokesperson said.

The statement also appears to refute the claim that the convent was hit by rocket fire from the IDF. (RELATED: Video Of Pakistani Air Force Is Old)

“Yesterday (Saturday), a letter from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was received describing a tragic incident that took place in the Holy Family Parish which is located in the Rimal area in the Gaza Strip. Yesterday morning (Saturday), representatives of the church contacted the IDF regarding explosions that were heard near the church. During the dialogue between the IDF and representatives of the community, no reports of a hit on the church, nor civilians being injured or killed, were raised. A review of the IDF’s operational findings support this,” the IDF spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for the Israeli prime minister’s office told the Washington Post that “there was no fighting in the Rimal neighborhood on Saturday where this Catholic church was located.”

Miral Atik, a spokesperson for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said in a Dec. 18 email to Check Your Fact that “we can not reach anyone inside the compound” and that “the information that has been attained and shared [in] the statement was taken from a trusted eyewitness.”

“The Patriarchate stands with what has been stated in the statement issues on Dec 16, and as a Media office we have not received any news about any communication made,” Atik said, when Check Your Fact inquired about whether the Patriarchate has heard from the IDF since its Dec. 16 statement.

The patriarchate also published images of what it says shows damage to the convent in a Dec. 18 tweet.

“Based on our report of December 16, 2023, concerning the deaths and injuries of a number of citizens in the Latin convent of Gaza, as well as the serious damage to the structures, we are displaying some of the photographs we received. It is time to end this senseless conflict,” the patriarchate said in the tweet.

Fr. Gabriel Romanelli, the parish priest of the Holy Family Catholic Parish, told Vatican News that “the situation already goes beyond tragedy. After the days of truce, the area of al Zeitoun started to be very active, with many bombings.” Fr. Romanelli also shared images of what he says are wounded people receiving Communion during Dec. 17 Mass on his personal Facebook page.

“Mass for today. Holy Communion of some of the wounded of yesterday’s Israeli attack on Christians who were sheltered inside the building of the Catholic Parish of Gaza Divine Liturgy today at the Gaza Latin Monastery,” Fr. Romanelli’s post partially reads.

Pope Francis condemned the incident, calling it “terrorism” during his Angelus prayer on Dec. 17, according to Vatican News. (RELATED: Does Video Show Two Palestinian Journalists Celebrating Missile Launching In Gaza?)

“Some say, ‘This is terrorism. This is war.’ Yes, it is war. It is terrorism. That is why the Scripture affirms that ‘God stops wars… breaks the bow, splinters the spear’ (Psalm 46:10). Let us pray to the Lord for peace,” Pope Francis said.

The IDF spokesperson’s Dec. 17 statement says that the “IDF only targets terrorists and terror infrastructure and does not target civilians, no matter their religion.”

“The IDF takes vast measures to avoid harm to uninvolved civilians, while fighting against a terrorist organization which does everything to put civilians at risk – including by using civilians and holy sites as human shields for its terror activities,” the statement reads.

A State Department spokesperson pointed Check Your Fact to remarks made by Max Miller, the State Department’s chief spokesperson, during a Dec. 18 press briefing about the allegations.

“So I will say as always it’s very tough for me to speak to specific incidents in – when oftentimes there will be disputed facts. We did see those reports. We were quite concerned by them. We’ve been raising those concerns directly with the Israeli Government. One of the things that we have advocated from the beginning of this conflict is deconfliction sites to ensure that schools and churches and hospitals are not attacked. And when we have concerns, we will continue to raise them with the Israeli Government,” Miller said.

An IDF spokesperson told Check Your Fact Dec. 19 that an “initial review of the incident” shows that “Hamas terrorists launched a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) at IDF troops from the vicinity of the church.”

“The troops then identified three people in the vicinity, operating as spotters for Hamas by guiding their attacks in the direction of the IDF troops. In response, our troops fired towards the spotters and hits were identified,” the spokesperson said.

“While this incident occurred in the area where the two women were reportedly killed, the reports received do not match the conclusion of our initial review which found that the IDF troops were targeting spotters in enemy lookouts. The IDF continues to investigate the incident,” the spokesperson added.

The IDF spokesperson said that the incident occurred in the afternoon of Dec. 17, even though the patriarchate said the incident occurred at noon on Dec. 16. The IDF spokesperson said the “investigation concluded that it happened on the 17th.”

Raphael Schutz, Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, said in an interview with Crux that the patriarchate’s accusations that the women were killed in “cold blood” were “blood libel” but also conceded that the women might have been shot by the IDF.

“So, it might be true technically that the women were shot by IDF forces, although this has not been 100 percent established, but even if this is true, this has not been done by malice, or intentionally, it was a mistake like others during the war,” Schutz said.

Note: This is a developing story. More information will be published as it becomes available, which is why a verdict has not been reached. A verdict may not be issued. 

Update 12/18/2023: This article has been updated with more information. 

Update 12/19/2023: This article has been updated with a response from the State Department and another statement from the IDF. It was also updated with more responses from the IDF. 

Update 12/22/2023: This article has been updated with comments from Schutz to the Crux. 

Elias Atienza

Senior Reporter
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