Updated on December 30 to reflect the latest death toll and include statements from Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem Suheil Dawani, the patriarchs and heads of Christian churches in Jerusalem and a letter from Churches for Middle East Peace to President George W. Bush.
Following a recent upsurge in violence in the Palestinian Territory of Gaza, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and other religious leaders have called for an end to the repeated rocket attacks from Palestinian militants and the continuing Israeli air strikes that are contributing to a severe humanitarian crisis in the world's most densely populated region.
"I urge a comprehensive response to these attacks," said Jefferts Schori, who visited Gaza in March to meet with religious and community leaders and tour the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, one of 37 institutions throughout the Middle East run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. "Since that visit, the situation, which was already devastating, has only worsened, with supplies of food, fuel, power, and medical supplies either cut off or indefinitely delayed. Our hospital must now try to treat the wounded under the most impossible circumstances."
Israel, which has reportedly positioned military tanks along the Gaza border, has said the recent air strikes and the blockade -- enforced since January 17 -- have been necessary to put pressure on militant Palestinians to cease firing rockets into southern Israel. But the Israeli attacks and shortages of essential supplies have created a humanitarian disaster in the region, where the unemployment level stands at 80 percent. According to Reuters news agency, more than 380 Palestinians have been killed in nearly four days of Israeli attacks on the territory controlled by Hamas.
"Innocent lives are being lost throughout the land we all call Holy, and as Christians remember the coming of the Prince of Peace, we ache for the absence of peace in the land of his birth," Jefferts Schori said in her December 29 statement. "Immediate attention should focus on vital humanitarian assistance to the suffocating people of Gaza." Also on December 29, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called on both sides to cease all acts of violence and urged Israel to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
The Al Ahli Arab Hospital, which treats Muslims, Christians and anyone in need, dispenses free medical treatment and services. But Jefferts Schori heard in March that it struggles without electricity for several hours a day and it relies on limited fuel supplies to operate its generator. The blockade has also caused difficulties in bringing medicines into Gaza.
Anne K. Lynn, director of the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, a non-profit organization that supports the mission of the Jerusalem diocese and its institutions, described the humanitarian crisis in Gaza as "overwhelming."
"The information we're receiving from the Al Ahli Arab Hospital is heartbreaking and requires immediate response," she said, noting that AFEDJ is in contact with the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the hospital to find out exactly how it can be most effective. Further information about AFEDJ is available here.
Suheila Tarazi, the hospital's director, has called the current situation a "catastrophe." She reported that in the first two hours of Israel's air strikes, the hospital received 45 injured patients, a third of whom were children, and 30 medical operations were performed.
In recent years, AFEDJ and Episcopal Relief and Development have provided critical financial assistance to the hospital as it struggles to serve the predominantly Muslim community in Gaza, where about 80 percent of the population live below the World Health Organization poverty line.
"Our hospital located in the heart of Gaza City is providing essential frontline medical and emergency humanitarian services to those coming or being brought directly to it -- and additionally is receiving patients transferred by UNRWA from the Government Hospital Al Shiffa to our Al Ahli Hospital for emergency, inpatient, and other surgical treatment of the wounded and injured," said Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem Suheil Dawani. "As a non-partisan well established hospital, we are receiving patients from all directions." Dawani said that all churches throughout the diocese will on Sunday, January 4 hold special services "for peace and reconciliation for those whose lives has been impacted by the Gaza conflict -- especially the wounded, injured and the families of those innocents who have died." A statement from Dawani is available here.
The patriarchs and heads of Christian churches in Jerusalem on December 30 issued a statement expressing deep concern and regret about the situation in Gaza and calling for Sunday, January 4, to be observed as a day for justice and peace. The full statement is available here.
Maureen Shea, director of Government Relations for the Episcopal Church, traveled to the Middle East in early December with a delegation from Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), a coalition of 22 Christian churches working exclusively on U.S. policy in the Middle East. The delegation was not allowed to visit Gaza but heard direct reports from the director of the Al Ahli Arab Hospital, Catholic Relief Services and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the Palestinian territories (OCHA).
"News from the media, in light of reporters not being allowed into Gaza, has understandably concentrated on the lack of humanitarian supplies because of closures at the checkpoints," said Shea, chair of CMEP, noting that a representative of OCHA explained how Gaza had gone from being a poor nation to an internationally supported welfare state with almost 80% of residents living in poverty, and 900,000 of the 1.5 million population as refugees. "The crisis for Gaza is not only immediate but long term, thereby further reducing the hopes of those who live there. Tragically, the ferocious attack of the Israeli Defense Forces is most likely to lead to more violence in the future, not less."
CMEP sent a letter on December 29 to President George W. Bush, as well as a copy to President-elect Barack Obama's transition team, urging prompt U.S. action to end the Gaza crisis.
"As people of faith, we care deeply about the welfare of both Israelis and Palestinians and deplore the violent deaths of those caught in this conflict. We reject all justifications for the unconscionable Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza into Israel," the CMEP coalition said in its letter. "We similarly reject the Israeli response as disproportionate and believe that it is likely to strengthen extremists and undermine moderates in the region ... There must now be prompt action by your Administration to help bring about an end to the violence." The full text of the letter is available here.
In her statement, Jefferts Schori noted that a demonstration took place in front of the Israeli consulate in New York on December 28. "The demonstrators included orthodox Jews. All were calling for an immediate end to the attacks in Gaza," she said. "I join my voice to theirs and those of many others around the world, challenging the Israeli government to call a halt to this wholly disproportionate escalation of violence. I challenge the Palestinian forces to end their rocket attacks on Israelis."
Jefferts Schori also urged the United States government "to use its influence to get these parties back to the negotiating table and end this senseless killing" and said that President-elect Barack Obama "needs to be part of this initiative, which demands his attention now and is likely to do so through his early months in office."
Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa has added his voice to those calling for an immediate end to hostilities in Gaza. "Watching the news, I could not help but join in the tears of Jesus, who wept over the land of his birth, and prayed for peace to reign," Makgoba said.
"Christmas reminds us that God took human form in Jesus Christ, vividly demonstrating the sanctity of all human life. This is not negotiable, and must be respected by all sides through an immediate end to violence," he added. "My prayer is that the tragic events of recent days will spur everyone in the region, and in the international community, to intensify efforts towards establishing a just and lasting peace in the land of our Savior's birth."
Jefferts Schori concluded her statement by asking all people of faith "to join with the Episcopalians in Jerusalem who this Sunday dispensed with their usual worship services and spent their time in prayer for those who are the objects of this violence. I pray for leaders who will seek a just peace for all in the Middle East, knowing that its achievement will only come when they have the courage to act boldly. But they must do so now, before the violence escalates further. It is only through a just and lasting peace that the hope of the ages can be fulfilled, that hope which we mark in the birth of a babe in Bethlehem."