LEICESTER, United Kingdom – In the wake of the Israeli military’s reported rocket attack on a Gaza church, an Irish bishop says “targeting a religious institution and vulnerable members of society is a grave violation of human rights.”

Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said Saturday that an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) sniper killed two women, later named as Nahida Khalil Anton and her daughter Samar, as they walked to a convent of nuns in the compound of Holy Family Parish.

Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan of Waterford and Lismore has expressed his deep concern about the rocket attack, which also resulted in the displacement of 54 residents and the evacuation of the religious house of the Missionaries of Charity, which was founded by Saint Mother Teresa.

“For peace to take hold, the sanctity of all human life must be upheld throughout the Holy Land.  I offer my heartfelt prayers for an end to the conflict, and I extend my support to the Patriarch, the Missionaries of Charity, and to all affected by this attack,” the bishop said.

“I am calling for an immediate end to the needless bloodshed in Gaza, as this slaughter is claiming innocent lives and causing immense suffering to local residents,” Cullinan said.

“As a community rooted in faith and compassion, I am asking all people of goodwill to join in solidarity with the victims of this senseless violence.  It is imperative that concerted efforts are made to address the underlying causes of this conflict and work towards establishing sustainable peace in the region,” he added.

Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan. (Credit: Irish Bishops' Conference.)
Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan. (Credit: Irish Bishops’ Conference.)

“The Diocese of Waterford and Lismore stands in unity with those who advocate for justice, peace, and reconciliation in Gaza.  As we approach Christmas Day, the celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace and our Savior coming amongst us, I wish to reaffirm our commitment to promoting understanding, empathy, and dialogue as essential components in building a harmonious society where all individuals can live free from fear and oppression,” the bishop said.

Pizzaballa said in a statement that the majority of Gaza’s estimated 1,000 Christians had taken refuge at the Holy Family parish since the start of the war.

Fifi Saba, whose sister is trapped inside the Holy Family Church, told BBC’s Radio 4 that people were scared to move from the church out of fear of being shot.

“They are locked in,” she said. “They can’t really see the street very much, and most of the time they’re cut off from the world. They don’t have their phones, they don’t have internet, they don’t have the news.”

Saba told the radio station that the people were terrified to go to the bathroom, because the women were shot trying to get to the toilet.

“And I think the past couple of days they have had no food,” she told the BBC.

Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin also condemned the attack on the church, saying “army snipers don’t kill civilians by accident.”

The bishop said the attack on church property is one of many taken against civilians on both sides in the conflict which erupted on October 7, after Hamas – the Islamist group that rules Gaza – attacked Israel, killing over 1,200 civilians and taking 248 hostages.

Speaking to the Irish Independent, Doran said he condemned the killing of any innocent civilians, especially when “it seems that they were deliberately ‘picked-off’.”

“But condemning alone seems so futile. I also encourage people of faith to redouble their prayers for peace and, in an appropriate way, to voice their call for a ceasefire,” he said.

The bishop, who visited the Holy Land in 2020, said he “saw with my own eyes what the Palestinians, even in the relatively calmer West Bank, have to put up with.”

He told the Irish newspaper the civilian population of Gaza cannot legitimately be denied the essentials of human life such as food, water, housing, and healthcare.

“To do this is a crime against humanity. This one church is a focus just now, but the whole of Gaza has been a concentration camp for Palestinians for over 70 years,” Doran said.

The Republic of Ireland has taken a stand in calling for an end to the war in Gaza. Premier Leo Varadkar said on Monday that he hoped diplomatic efforts would be made in the coming days and weeks to push for a humanitarian ceasefire.

“We understand it’s one toilet per 350 people at the moment in Gaza – the inevitability is disease, and those diseases can take more lives in the space of a few days than bombs will take in a few weeks,” he said.

“Even in war, people get heart attacks, they have strokes, they get pneumonia, and if they can’t be treated, well then they’ll die of illnesses they otherwise would have survived and of course, particularly for women needing maternity care and even things like C-sections, they become almost impossible in the environment to which doctors are trying to operate in Gaza,” Varadkar said.

Doran told the Irish Independent the Irish Government’s position has been very clearly articulated over the past few months and he fully agreed with it: “It is not anti-Israeli, but pro-humanitarian.”

“It is deeply regrettable that the United States, which sees itself as a world leader and advocate of freedom, seems to be unable or unwilling to use its influence appropriately in this case, even to the point of vetoing a UN resolution calling for a ceasefire,” the bishop said.