Episcopal bishops urge President Obama to help save Gaza hospital

Published June 7, 2012

Bishop Suheil Dawani of the Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem (left) and Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, in St. Philip’s Church, part of the Ahli Arab Hospital compound. Photo: Andrea Mann

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has ended its financial support to the Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, an institution run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East.

The decision, made June 1, cuts the hospital’s budget nearly by half.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori along with 101 Episcopal Church bishops from 43 states and the District of Columbia have written to U.S. President Barack Obama calling for his intervention in reversing the decision that, they say, could have “disastrous consequences for the more than two million residents of Gaza, already living in conditions of profound humanitarian need.”

UNRWA’s decision, after nearly two decades of partnership with the hospital, comes “without public justification … and threatens to debilitate the hospital, its 120-person staff, and the many thousands of Gazans who rely on it for primary and urgent care and treatment,” the bishops say. [The full text of the letter is available here.]

Founded as a mission of the Anglican Church in 1882, the hospital became a part of the diocese in 1982. Today, it is among more than 30 institutions run by the Jerusalem-based diocese.

The hospital provides primary and emergency care to the almost exclusively Muslim population in Gaza, “and does so without proselytizing or discriminating on the basis of religion, ethnicity, politics, or social identification,” the bishops say. “It is the only facility of its sort in the Gaza Strip that is not run by the Hamas government and as such, it is able to provide care without any outside interference or political calculation. Its continued operation thus is in the inherent interests of the United States government.”

Hospital Director Suhaila Tarazi, in a recent interview with ENS, said that the hospital is “a place of peace, a place of reconciliation, a place of love.”

The hospital serves about 42,000 outpatients and 4,800 inpatients per annum, and runs specific programs for children and the elderly. It provides services in general surgery, general medicine, gynecology and obstetrics, pediatrics, orthopedics, among other areas.

“We provide medical care to all people, especially the poor, without any discrimination,” said Tarazi. “As a Christian hospital we have the full respect from all the community because we are for all.”

Jefferts Schori, lead signatory of the bishops’ letter, met Tarazi in March 2008 when she visited Gaza and the hospital. The presiding bishop witnessed firsthand some of the desperate living conditions Palestinians in Gaza face daily. Although unemployment levels have dropped from 80 to about 42 percent in the last 4 years, more than 70 percent of Gazans still live below the World Health Organization poverty line.

Trade and services to Gaza are mostly controlled by Israel, which views the Hamas government and Islamic militants as a threat against its security. Israeli airstrikes in Gaza continue as a response to Islamic militants firing rockets into southern Israel.

Regular power cuts, food and water shortages, and lack of fuel place immense pressure on the daily medical services provided by the hospital.

“There is a shortage of medical supplies, in particular anesthesia,” said Tarazi. “So many times we’ve cancelled operations.”

Tarazi also told ENS that on most days the hospital operates without electricity for between 16 and 23 hours.

“It is not hyperbole to say … that the humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip are as severe as any on earth, or that Al Ahli Hospital is a rare and absolutely vital source of genuine good news in that context,” the bishops write in their letter. “The decision of UNRWA to terminate its support for the hospital is utterly indefensible and must be reversed.”

UNRWA’s support has amounted to approximately $1 million per year, or nearly half of the hospital’s $2.4 million budget.

“Mr. President, in asking for your personal intervention, we appeal to you as a person of faith who has spoken stirringly of the need for reconciliation between the children of Abraham. Al Ahli hospital is doing the work you have articulated, but in order to continue, it needs the support of friends from around the world,” the bishops write. “As professionally superb as the hospital is, it cannot survive without international donor support, the largest portion of which has heretofore come from UNRWA.”

“This unfortunate decision aggravates a desperate and desperately sad situation,” Anne Lynn, director of the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, told ENS. “If this decision is not reversed, the hospital’s capacity to serve those in need will be drastically reduced. The people in Gaza have depended on this facility for 130 years.”

The American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem provides some financial assistance to the hospital that serves the predominantly Muslim population in Gaza.

Praising Tarazi and Ahli’s medical professionals for their “courageous ministry,” Lynn said: “In a place of fear and violence, the hospital is an oasis of calm and peace. We as a community of faith must come together to insure that this ministry continues.”

Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem Suheil Dawani told ENS in a recent interview that Christ is present in Ahli Hospital through the work of healing. “The institutions are the arm of witness to the Lord in this land.”

– Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


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