Gaza ceasefire pilgrimage calls for ‘just peace’ in Israel and Palestine as universities respond to campus protests

The ecumenical Gaza ceasefire pilgrimage gathers on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Photo: Matthew Puddister
Published May 30, 2024

Ottawa, Toronto and Kingston

More than 120 Christians including national church leaders marched to Parliament Hill on May 22 for a public prayer vigil, the culmination of an ecumenical pilgrimage calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and a “just peace” in Israel and Palestine.

Organized by the ecumenical advocacy group KAIROS Canada, of which the Anglican Church of Canada is a member, the Ottawa event was part of a global movement of Gaza ceasefire pilgrimages. KAIROS Canada interim executive director Leah Reesor-Keller described the pilgrimages as an act of “prayerful solidarity with the people of Gaza and in response to the call of our Palestinian Christian siblings.”

The pilgrims call for an “enduring and sustained” ceasefire in Gaza; immediate flow of food, water, aid, fuel and humanitarian assistance to save lives; release of all captives; ending all arms transfers to Israel; and “ending occupation so a just peace can begin.” Members of the Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Mennonite, United and Orthodox churches participated in the Ottawa march.

Since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and Israel’s subsequent attack on Gaza, more than 36,000 Palestinians and 1,400 Israelis have been killed. The UN reported in January that 1.9 million civilians, or 85 per cent of Gaza’s total population, had been forcibly displaced. There has been widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure including schools, hospitals, mosques, churches and residential neighbourhoods. A May 25 statement by 70 human rights organizations urged authorities to officially declare a famine in Gaza, where Israel has blocked the entry of some humanitarian aid. On May 30, Israel lifted a ban on the sale of food from its own territory and the occupied West Bank, though deliveries were reported to be erratic and prices high.

Speaking on Parliament Hill, KAIROS Canada interim executive director Leah Reesor-Keller said more than 150 congregations in Canada from Victoria, B.C. to St. John’s, Nfld. had participated in pilgrimages to “prayerfully map Gaza onto their own cities”—walking or rolling for all or part of 41 km, the length of the Gaza Strip. Based on their reports, Reesor-Kellor said, KAIROS estimated that pilgrims in Canada had collectively walked or rolled more than 10,000 km.

Gaza ceasefire pilgrims march toward Parliament Hill. Photo: Matthew Puddister

In Ottawa, pilgrims gathered in downtown Minto Park starting at 8 a.m. They prayed together and participated in a smudging ceremony before setting out, walking down Elgin Street to Parliament Hill with banners and signs calling for a ceasefire and peace in Gaza.

The march ended at Parliament Hill, where pilgrims held their vigil, prayed, sang hymns and heard speeches from representatives of each denomination.

New Nakba being waged, Palestinian Christian says

An additional speaker was Rula Odeh, a Canadian of Palestinian Christian heritage and board chair of the Canadian Friends of Sabeel, a national pro-Palestine ecumenical group. Odeh described the group’s work as supporting “the struggle for equality and justice, freedom and human rights for Palestinians living under apartheid and military occupation with partners around the world.” Her group, Odeh said, works “non-violently for a just and durable peace for Palestinians and Israelis.”

Odeh shared the story of her father, a 90-year-old survivor of the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), the word many Palestinians use to describe the consequences of the 1948 foundation of the state of Israel—war between Arabs and Jews with massacres and other atrocities on both sides, followed by the fleeing and expulsion of many Palestinians from their homeland.  The Nakba, Odeh said, forced her father’s family to flee from Jerusalem. Odeh’s father is Anglican and her mother Greek Orthodox.

“We Palestinian Christians, as with all Palestinians, are stunned that yet another Nakba is being waged against us,” Odeh told the Christians gathered on Parliament Hill.

“We are grieving at the silence, the inaction, the impunity, the complicity that has been going on for 76 years since the 1948 Nakba; since the illegal military occupation by Israel in 1967 and since the cruel blockade of Gaza that started in 2007. We mourn because this inaction, silence and so on has led to the horrific and unparalleled crisis that we are all witnessing.”

Rula Odeh, board chair of the Canadian Friends of Sabeel, speaks to the Gaza ceasefire pilgrimage in front of the Canadian Parliament Buildings. Photo: Matthew Puddister

Referring to the calls to action of the pilgrimage, Odeh said it was imperative to end the mass killing in Gaza. She cited Francesca Albanese, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, who reported in March that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe Israel was committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza.

“As Palestinians, this is what we feel is happening to our people,” Odeh said. “So it is extremely urgent to end the genocide and the humanitarian catastrophe. In Gaza, we are amplifying [Palestinians’] call for the truth to come out by ensuring that the international journalists and aid workers can go in to document and report.”

A preliminary ruling Jan. 26 by the International Court of Justice said it was “plausible” Israel’s attack on Gaza had violated the Genocide Convention.

She described a recent move by Israel to cut off and remove all Associated Press cameras that had been showing what was happening in Gaza as “very ominous.” In early May, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu banned Al Jazeera from operating inside Israel.

Odeh called on churches to insist on accountability by asking the Canadian government and Parliament to uphold international humanitarian and human rights laws. She expressed support for an announcement earlier in the week by Karim Khan, chief prosecutor of the International Court of Justice, that he would seek arrest warrants against both Israeli and Hamas leaders for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Palestinians, Odeh said, “continue to insist that they have a right to life, safety, security, freedom, equality, justice and self-determination—just like all people around the world deserve without exception, just like Israelis, just like everyone in the Middle East. Our prayer is that Palestinians will no longer be an exception.

“Palestinian Christians have been a continuous presence in the Holy Land for over 2,000 years, and we cannot give up on our siblings from the cradle of Christianity,” she said. “They need us to amplify their voice in our churches and our ecumenical initiatives. We are here for them and more broadly, we are here today to advance our shared goals of justice and a durable peace for all Palestinians and all Israelis.”

Primate: ‘To do nothing is to be complicit’

On behalf of Anglicans, Bishop of Toronto Andrew Asbil read out a statement from Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, who was unable to attend in person due to a prior commitment.

In her reflection, the primate said the Anglican Church of Canada “stands with all who are seeking an end to the violence, a permanent ceasefire, immediate provision of humanitarian aid, an end to all exports of arms to Israel and intermediaries, the release of all hostages, and a return to discussions that will lead to justice—recognizing the continuing need to address the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the need for a peace that will lead to the thriving of all who live in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank.”

In Ottawa, Anglicans joined members of the Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Mennonite, United and Orthodox churches. Photo: Matthew Puddister

Nicholls described widespread pain felt by those who have watched events in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank in the several months since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and the start of Israel’s current assault on Gaza.

“The initial horror of the attack on Oct. 7 has been added to by the unceasing attacks on Gaza that have killed so many women and children, given licence to increased violence in the West Bank and utterly destroyed the infrastructure of Gaza,” Nicholls said.

“Listening to the news every morning [of] the rising death tool, the agony of families of hostages, the attacks on hospitals leaving little or no medical aid, the deaths of humanitarian workers, and the inability to find ways to bring humanitarian aid to those most in need leaves us in a permanent state of keening lament at human evil.”

The primate said neither the bombardment of Gaza, the destruction of Hamas, nor attacks on Israeli settlements would bring peace. Nicholls recalled her recent visit to Rome with other Anglican primates to meet with Pope Francis, who said, “War is always a defeat.”

“My heart breaks with the pain of the unrelenting tragedies unfolding across the land of the holy one, as no end is yet in sight,” Nicholls said. “We may have little personal ability to effect an end to the conflict, but we can and must wail loudly and shout out our pain.

“We must demand more from our government to do what it can to add its voice to that of international bodies for justice and peace, and to use its economic and political influence wherever possible. To do nothing is to be complicit.”

National Bishop Susan Johnson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, which is in full communion with the Anglican Church of Canada, also participated in the Ottawa march and supported the pilgrims’ calls to action.

“I believe very strongly in the freedom of all people and in human rights and justice,” Johnson said. “The situation in Gaza is against all of those states, so [I’m] happy to be here and march and make a stand.”

Church leaders meet with MPs

Global Relations director Andrea Mann took part in the march as a representative of the Anglican Church of Canada and of the Canadian Companions of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. She was among staff members who accompanied church leaders after the vigil to speak with MPs and relay their call for peace—meeting with Omar Alghabra, Liberal member of the Foreign Affairs and International Development Committee, and NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson.

Speaking to the Anglican Journal before the meeting, Mann said much had changed since July 2023, when Anglicans and Lutherans passed a joint resolution at their Assembly in Calgary calling for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine.

“I’m here to try to listen and learn as much as possible what the government of Canada and MPs from other political parties are prepared to commit, to respond to our call and calls from all over the world to really step out and put an end to this conflict,” Mann said.

The Rev. Trish Miller (left), incumbent, and Archdeacon Nancy MacLeod, priest associate, of Leeds Anglican Ministries march in Ottawa for the Gaza ceasefire pilgrimage. Photo: Matthew Puddister

Anglicans have taken part in Gaza ceasefire pilgrimages in various parts of the country, she said. At the synod of the ecclesiastical province of B.C. and Yukon, the primate joined church members for part of their cumulative 41-km walk. In the diocese of Toronto, Asbil, Bishop Riscylla Shaw and Bishop Kevin Robertson also walked for part of a cumulative pilgrimage that took place over two days.

Peace central to Christian faith

Among local Anglicans who took part in the march to Parliament Hill was Canon Gary van der Meer, rector of St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church, where a reception was held after the vigil and a subsequent press conference.

“I pray for peace and I feel deep pain and am deeply conflicted about the people who are figuring out how to have peace,” van der Meer said, adding, “I hope the federal government does take seriously that people care about this.”

Leeds Anglican Ministries, a regional Anglican ministry in the diocese of Ontario, also had a presence at the march with the Rev. Trish Miller, incumbent, and Archdeacon Nancy MacLeod, priest associate.

“Peace is at the heart of what our faith is about—peace with justice, that real true peace,” MacLeod said.

“What is happening now in the land of the holy one is just such an egregious violation of that peace,” she added. “The world needs to be concerned about it and all situations like that, and speaking up for peace and a ceasefire is the first step in that.”

Miller echoed these sentiments. “Valuing human dignity … honouring our commitment to look after the vulnerable—that’s part of our covenant, to love our neighbour,” she said. “Peace isn’t some metaphorical idea. It’s about relationship and about loving and compassion, justice.”

The Rev. Jennifer Henry, executive minister at the United Church’s national office and a voluntary associate minister at Grace United Church in Burlington, Ont., attended the march with members of the United Church of Canada.

KAIROS Canada says more than 150 congregations across the country from different denominations have participated in Gaza ceasefire pilgrimages. The Rev. Jennifer Henry (fifth from left, holding “London, ON” sign) walked in both the Toronto and Ottawa pilgrimages. Photo: Matthew Puddister

“I’m here because I believe so passionately that it’s more than time for a ceasefire,” Henry said. “The situation on the ground is catastrophic. The international community is clear about that. And what we need to do is put all kinds of pressure that we can on Israel to bring this action to an end.

“We have to think about the communities that are starving, the communities with no infrastructure, the communities with no health supports that have nowhere to go. We have to look at stopping the immediate violence and then addressing the root causes of this, which are decades and decades and decades in the making.”

In 2019, Henry visited Gaza as part of a KAIROS delegation. Already at that time, she said, a humanitarian crisis was taking place, with the blockade Israel imposed in 2007 following the election of Hamas severely curtailing people’s capacity to meet basic needs.

Since the Gaza ceasefire pilgrimages began, Henry had chosen to walk herself on different segments, including taking part in the Toronto pilgrimage. She described walking in the pilgrimages as “an act of prayer.”

“Every person is made in the image of God,” Henry said. “When there is this defilement of God’s image through violence against people, that is something we should stand up for that’s happening on a catastrophic level.

“I think we are particularly also concerned [because] this is the land we call holy,” she added. “This is the land where Jesus walked. These are the places that are important to Christians, to Jews and to Muslims. We need a solution that helps people have access to their holy sites and participate in this holy land, even as there is a solution to the political aspects of the crisis.”

Pro-Israel group criticizes churches for making few calls on Hamas

Zionist and Jewish advocacy organization the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CJJA) offered a mixed response to the Gaza ceasefire pilgrimage in Ottawa.

Richard Marceau, CIJA’s vice president for external affairs and general counsel, told the Anglican Journal he did not see any media coverage of the pilgrimage and hadn’t heard anyone mention it until after the fact. He described the event and its calls to action as “warmed-over statements from liberal churches who have been very critical of Israel even before Oct. 7.”

Marceau criticized the calls to action for making few demands on Hamas and placing more weight on Israel, which he described as a disingenuous double standard that hurt the credibility of pilgrimage organizers. He said it was irresponsible for churches and protesters to minimize the fact that the Canadian government lists Hamas as a terrorist organization, which had committed its own human rights abuses in Gaza. “That is why I think those churches have lost their moral compass,” he said.

Andrea Mann (white shirt, near front at left), global relations director for the Anglican Church of Canada, and National Bishop Susan Johnson (purple clerical shirt under white robe, walking in front of United Church banner) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada were among those participating in the Ottawa march. Photo: Matthew Puddister

“Sometimes it feels like groups like the Anglican Church and others don’t seem to realize that leaving Hamas in power in Gaza is exactly the opposite of their purpose, their stated goal, which is a two-state solution,” Marceau said. “It will never happen if Hamas is there.”

Marceau expressed sorrow for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. “If anybody is not affected by the suffering of Gazans, those people have lost their humanity,” he said. “There is no way, even as a supporter of Israel or Israel’s right to defend itself, that one cannot be affected by what they’re seeing in terms of civilian suffering.” He also said he agreed with the calls to action on releasing captives and ending occupation.

On the demand for a ceasefire, however, Marceau said “a ceasefire can only happen when the hostages are released and Hamas lays down its arms… Hamas has said that it would redo Oct. 7 again and again given the opportunity. To me, that means that if Hamas stays in power in Gaza … it will start again.”

“There is no way there could be peace with somebody who is dedicated to killing you,” he said.

Marceau criticized the demand for Canada and other countries to cease all arms transfers to Israel as placing conditions on Israel’s “right to defend itself.” Regarding the call to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, he accused Hamas of stealing humanitarian aid and using it for the group’s own members, though he provided no evidence for this claim.

Pro-Palestine university encampments include Christian students

Meanwhile, Christian students have joined pro-Palestine encampments on university campuses—a movement that began in the United States, then spread to Canada and other countries—demanding that post-secondary institutions divest from Israel.

The first encampment in Canada appeared on April 27 at McGill University in Montreal. Others followed at institutions such as the University of British Columbia and University of Toronto. At Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., students held a sit-in protest during a May 10 meeting of the school’s board of trustees and then set up an encampment on the university campus overnight.

The Queen’s protesters spent 12 nights camped outside Richardson Hall before taking down their encampment May 22, after principal Patrick Deane received a formal request with 600 signatures in support calling for the university to divest from Israel. Deane promised to form a committee to review the request within a week, with protest organizers asking for two seats on the committee.

In Kingston, Queen’s University students set up their encampment in support of Palestine outside Richardson Hall. Faces have been blurred due to security concerns. Photo: Matthew Puddister

The main organizers of the Queen’s encampment included two student groups, Queen’s University Apartheid Divest (QUAD) and Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights. Sophie Sterling, an undergraduate history student and encampment spokesperson, told the Anglican Journal May 13 that protesters were demanding Queen’s immediately disclose its externally managed investments. QUAD also called for Queen’s to boycott all Israeli academic institutions. Protesters drew comparisons to the 1987 decision of Queen’s to divest from apartheid South Africa.

The Queen’s Endowment Fund totalled approximately $1.5 billion in 2023, according to the university. A report QUAD submitted to the Queen’s administration indicated that $150 million of this fund is held in companies that invest in Israel. In addition, the fund includes undisclosed investments controlled by external asset managers.

Sterling, 21, said that $150 million represents an investment in companies that “facilitate or profit from Israeli apartheid and occupation.” Many are U.S.-based companies. QUAD has demanded that Queen’s specifically divest from weapons companies, defence contractors and companies on the list of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to apply economic pressure against Israel.

Sterling offered the example of Airbnb, into which Queen’s has invested $800,000. “Airbnb operates rentals in illegal settlements in Palestine … We would say Queen’s [should] divest from Airbnb because that has nothing to do with your mission as an academic institution,” she said. “Airbnb also profits from Israeli apartheid occupation by operating in illegal settlements. These are illegal settlements based on international law.”

Airbnb did not respond to the Anglican Journal’s request for comment. Queen’s University communications told the Journal it was unable to arrange an interview with school leadership.

Marceau responded to calls for BDS against Israel and businesses that support it by calling them “part of a campaign to delegitimize Israel to the point where Israel has no right to exist.” He says members of the BDS movement including Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the movement, have made statements Marceau and other critics characterize as saying Israel does not have any right to exist in the course of their advocacy for the decolonization of the territory.

Barghouti, a Palestinian who lives in Israel, is known for rejecting the two-state solution for Israel-Palestine and advocating instead a single secular, democratic state with full equality of rights for Palestinians and Israeli Jews.

Among the dozens of Queen’s students camped in tents outside Richardson Hall was Kaelan Rankin—a professional law student, Roman Catholic, and longtime staff member and volunteer at Camp Brébeuf, a Catholic summer camp in Rockwood, Ont.

“I’m ashamed of Queen’s affiliations and associations and investments in corporations all around the world that are facilitating and profiting off of genocide, not just in Palestine … As an academic institution, Queens should not have their money in that position,” Rankin said.

Signs at the Queen’s encampment. Photo: Matthew Puddister

While active in his church, Rankin, 22, said his faith did not play any role in his support for the Palestine solidarity movement or decision to join the encampment.

“I’d say I support the Palestine solidarity movement strictly as a human being, as I think you don’t need to believe in a God to think it’s wrong that tens of thousands of people have been murdered,” he said. “I don’t think you need to believe in a God to think that occupying land the way Israel is is an atrocity.”

Responding to accusations that Israel’s extensive military campaign, bombing and displacement of Gazans from their homes constituted genocide, Marceau argued that “genocide requires intent.” In other words, Israel could not be considered guilty of genocide, he said, unless it was deliberately trying to force Palestinians out of Gaza.

“Now, are there extremists in Israel who have said this? Yes, unfortunately there are extremists in every country… And those are people who should be condemned because that is not a way forward,” he told the Journal.

At the same time, he argued, Hamas is a genocidal group whose goal is the eradication of Israel. Because of the willingness it demonstrated to target Israeli civilians in the Oct. 7 attacks, Marceau claimed the difference in military power between the Israel and Hamas is irrelevant. He cited figures from Modern War Institute professor John Spencer, who argues Israel has set a new standard for protecting civilians in urban warfare (a claim that has been contested by, among others, economist and anti-violence activist Michael Spagat). Israeli forces’ going out of their way to warn civilians to flee bombing sites illustrates their intent to preserve lives, not exterminate Gazans, Marceau said.

At the same time, he said, the protest encampments on school campuses across the country have been “spewing problematic stuff,” including antisemitism. He cited a video from the University of Toronto encampment where a demonstrator in a balaclava and sunglasses repeats “heil Hitler” and says the world would be a better place if the dictator had murdered all the Jews. (Other protesters can be seen in the video gesturing for him to back off.) At a protest in Montreal last October, imam Adil Charkaoui called on Allah to “kill the enemies of the people of Gaza and to spare none of them.” These incidents, Marceau said, show that there are antisemitic elements within the groups protesting Israel. If protests are to represent legitimate democratic expression, he said, organizers need to do a better job of distancing themselves from those voices.

“Not everybody who is pro-Palestinian is antisemitic and criticizing Israel is not per se antisemitic. There are people who see what happens, genuinely care about the suffering and want it to stop,” said Marceau.

Sterling said May 13 that the number of students at the encampment had fluctuated day by day. Some slept overnight, while others were only present during the day. The encampment had received donations of food and other supplies from the wider community.

“For the most part, everyone’s been really supportive,” Sterling said.

Universities move on encampments

At the same time, student protesters were cautious about doxxing and other security threats. The Anglican Journal visited the Queen’s encampment days after police in Edmonton and Alberta violently dispersed pro-Palestine encampments. Many Queen’s protesters wore masks and asked that their faces not be photographed.

“You always have to be vigilant, especially doing any sort of action like this where you’re holding a mirror up to an institution such as this and directly going against the status quo,” Sterling said. “The response is not going to be the same from every institution, but it’s always going to be met with contempt. I would say we haven’t had any crazy escalations with the Kingston police or anything like that.”

However, an altercation between protesters and Queen’s campus security occurred outside Richardson Hall on May 11. Video published by local news site Kingstonist showed security pushing and hitting students. But as of May 13, Sterling said, “there hasn’t been as of yet a collective attempt by the authorities to raid or take down the encampment.”

Police separate pro-Palestine protesters and pro-Israel counter-protesters at the University of Toronto encampment. Photo: Matthew Puddister

At other campuses across Canada, university administrations have taken different approaches. On May 9, police cleared an encampment at the University of Calgary, where, they claimed, after a day of warning protesters to leave, they were met with physical resistance by those who still remained. Police dressed in riot gear responded with pepper spray and a flash grenade and cleared a line of chanting people with riot shields and batons. Several people were injured, including a 67-year-old woman who reported having a broken rib, according to Calgary Herald reporter Bill Kaufmann.

On May 27, a Quebec Superior Court granted an injunction to the Université du Québec à Montréal allowing it to prohibit protesters from setting up tents or other material within two metres of campus buildings. The school’s administration has stated that while the university did not ask for the judge to order the protest dismantled entirely, security measures were necessary to prevent protesters from blocking exits or overloading electrical systems. The school’s rector, Stéphane Pallage, told CBC it would now be appropriate to negotiate with protesters. The Toronto Star reported May 27 that the University of Toronto had sought a court order allowing police to arrest and remove protesters from the centre of its downtown campus, after the protesters had rejected the school’s final offer to create committees to study divesting from Israel-supporting companies.

Asked what message he might direct to Christians such as readers of the Anglican Journal, Rankin responded, “I’d say to, for a second, put faith aside.” Palestinians, he said, are “still people and they are people being murdered. There are people being displaced, starved … It can be harder for a lot of people to empathise given the difference in culture … No one should be comfortable going about their day seeing that.”

Correction: The Rev. Jennifer Henry is executive minister at the United Church’s national office and a voluntary associate minister at Grace United Church in Burlington, Ont. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.

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