‘Pity the innocents’ Church leaders urge focus on plight of Holy Land civilians

A girl walks through the scorched courtyard of the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, a PWRDF partner operated by the Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem and site of a deadly Oct. 17 explosion variously blamed on the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian militants Photo: Mohammed Al-Masri/Reuters
Published November 13, 2023

Leaders in the international Anglican Communion and the Anglican Church of Canada released messages of lament and calls for compassion after the renewal of violence in the Holy Land this fall. Meanwhile, sources with close ties to the region and its struggles spoke with the Journal about where they see hope for eventual peace there.

Canon Richard LeSueur is host of The Fifth Gospel, a video series on the Holy Land and former dean and lecturer at St. George’s College in Jerusalem. He has also served on the advisory council of the Companions of Jerusalem, a group of Canadian Anglicans formed to raise awareness of the Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem and act for peace in the Holy Land.

LeSueur told the Journal concerned Christians should pray for the region’s peacemakers—even though their efforts are unlikely to bear fruit in the near term,

“Pray for the peacemakers. That’s who Jesus named as blessed, and that’s who we need,” LeSueur said as war between Israel and Hamas, the group governing the Gaza Strip, began, spurred by a cross-border attack by Hamas militants Oct. 7. “That’s where the imagination, the soulfulness, the Spirit, can speak through those who can rise above and find the solutions that do exist. They’re there, but it’s not going to be done in a generation.”

During his time living in and visiting the Holy Land, he said, he has seen the conditions in Gaza, which he describes as “an incubator of sorrows and suffering.”

“What happened [Oct. 7] … is horrific in every way,” he said. “It has to be denounced. It’s monstrous. But it’s not a surprise.” In an ongoing cycle of violence and oppression, he added, “Each takes their turn. Pity the innocents.”

LeSueur said it can be difficult to acknowledge the legitimate needs of both peoples without being accused of ignoring the power imbalance or of favoritism in a conflict that tramples on innocent lives on both sides.

In statements posted on their websites, the archbishops of Canterbury and York along with Secretary General of the Anglican Communion Bishop Anthony Poggo condemned the Hamas attacks and called for restraint and reconciliation efforts on both sides. And Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, in a joint statement with National Bishop Susan Johnson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), grieved the violence and acknowledged both the suffering caused by the attacks and the suffering of Palestinians. They also voiced concern for civilian casualties and acknowledged both Israelis’ and Palestinians’ rights to safety, security and dignity.

“There’s no question that this kind of horrific violence is not a solution to anything,” Nicholls said to the Journal after the Hamas attack. “And the great tragedy is it just deepens the entrenched hatreds, the entrenched stereotypes, the entrenched everything on all sides.”

At the same time, she agreed with LeSueur that it was not surprising that the conditions inside Gaza would result in some Palestinians choosing the path of violence. She wanted to take great care, she said, to be clear she would not endorse violence—regardless of its perpetrators—or the persecution of civilians.

Rabbi Adam Stein, an associate rabbi at Vancouver’s Congregation Beth Israel, said he would like to see Christian organizations add more in their statements to repudiate Hamas as a terrorist organization and highlight the severity of their initial attack rather than jumping straight to lecturing Israel about suffering on both sides. He reminded the Journal the attack killed more Jewish people than any other since the Holocaust.

But he and LeSueur both believe the best hope for long-term peace in the region is the people already working to bridge the gap between Israeli and Palestinian civilians. Stein recalled his own work leading an interfaith trip for a group of Jews, Christians and Muslims from Australia to the Holy Land, during which they visited Oasis of Peace, a community of Israeli and Palestinian families who live side by side.

It must be difficult, he said, to live in a community like that as tensions rise. The outbreak of war will have set back grassroots and diplomatic efforts alike. Now, he said, the future of a diplomatic negotiation between Israel and Saudi Arabia which would have offered hope for Israel’s relationship with other Arab nations has fallen into doubt. But the fact that it and initiatives like Oasis of Peace exist shows that progress is possible.

“If most of them can continue on after this, then that’s where we have hope—and if Jews and Christians, etc., outside of Israel and outside of the Middle East can continue to have dialogue and interactions,” he said. “I hope that people can march on with their relationships and the bridge-building that they do.”

Jonathan Kuttab, a co-founder of Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq, also believes that violence offers no solutions—especially not when it is directed against civilians. He said the conflict consisted of an oppressive regime on the Israeli side and, on the other, retaliatory violence that serves to confirm the Israeli government’s fears and results in redoubled efforts to dominate the territory.

Kuttab says the only hope for peace is for all involved to give up their claims of exclusivity to their territory and find a way to live on the land together. And he insisted that must start with Israel as the side of the conflict with greater resources, funding and military might. But he said he doesn’t see how that could happen without serious, forceful pressure from other countries.

“Those who have power and privilege will not easily give it up. They have to be pressured either internally or externally to move towards justice.” However, he said, the international community has yet to find a way to exert that pressure without renewing Israel’s fears of antisemitic discrimination and causing it to clamp down harder.

At this summer’s Assembly, the Anglican Church of Canada and ELCIC’s governing bodies each passed a resolution affirming Israel’s right to security and self-defense and calling Christians in Canada to oppose antisemitism. The resolution also condemned the Israeli policies of blockading Gaza and occupying East Jerusalem as illegal under international law.

Nicholls stressed that these positions need not be seen as contradictory—that Israel is a legitimate state whose citizens did not deserve the violence of the Hamas attacks, and that its current policies may be harmful and open to criticism.

In an Oct. 18 open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Nicholls and Johnson called for Canada to champion humanitarian aid to Gaza following a deadly explosion on the grounds of the Anglican-run Al-Ahli Arab Hospital there the previous day. They highlighted the hospital’s history of cancer treatment and care for traumatized children in the region. They urged Canada to call for an immediate cessation of hostilities and the creation of a corridor to bring food, water and medical aid into Gaza.

The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) announced the same day it would send $30,000 to the hospital, which is owned and operated by the Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem and is a PWRDF partner. PWRDF also launched an appeal for donations to the hospital.

The Israeli government and the Hamas-led government in Gaza have each blamed their opponents for the explosion at the hospital. Hamas authorities claim the blast was part of the Israeli bombardment, while the Israeli Defense Forces say the blast was caused by an off-target missile fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a paramilitary group. U.S. and Canadian investigations have since backed Israel’s version of events. The Gaza health ministry said the incident had claimed 471 lives; an Israeli official, however, told the Reuters news agency the death toll appeared to be several dozen.

Three days earlier, four people were wounded at the same hospital when an Israeli rocket struck and severely damaged its cancer treatment centre, according to the Anglican Communion News Service.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Archbishop Hosam Naoum, bishop of Jerusalem and primate of Jerusalem and the Middle East, released a joint statement Oct. 24 calling for aid from the international Christian community in the form of prayer, advocacy and financial support for the diocese’s ministries in Gaza and Israel.

“When the lives of the innocent are at risk, we strain our eyes for the light of the One who offers healing, peace, and justice. In Gaza, the Al-Ahli hospital, run by the diocese of Jerusalem, is that light,” wrote Welby.


  • Sean Frankling

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.

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