The head of the Latin Catholic Church in the Holy Land joined other Christian leaders in the region Monday to condemn the use of force by Israeli police forces during the funeral procession of Shireen Abu Akleh, a journalist who was reportedly killed by Israeli forces last week.
“The Police stormed into a Christian health institute, disrespecting the Church, disrespecting the health institute, disrespecting the memory of the deceased and forcing the pallbearers almost to drop the coffin,” said Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, in a statement issued jointly Monday with Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.
“Israeli Police's invasion and disproportionate use of force, attacking mourners, striking them with batons, using smoke grenades, shooting rubber bullets, frightening the hospital's patients, is a severe violation of international norms and regulations, including the fundamental human right of freedom of religion, which must be observed also in a public space,” the bishops wrote May 16.
The statement was issued on behalf of “the bishops of the faithful of the Christian Churches in the Holy Land,” and aimed to “condemn the violent intrusion of the Israeli Police into a funeral procession of the slain journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, as it was going from Saint Joseph Hospital to the Greek-Melkite Cathedral Church,” it said.
Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, 51, was an Al Jazeera journalist who covered the political and humanitarian situation of Palestinians living in territory under Israeli control. She was killed May 11 while she covered an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank. When she was shot, Abu Akleh was wearing a vest which denoted she was a journalist.
Palestinian witnesses said Abu Akleh was killed by Israeli gunfire.
Abu Akleh was a Melkite Catholic. She was born in Jerusalem to an Arab Christian family, and was a United States citizen.
Her funeral on Friday began among mourners gathered at St. Joseph’s Hospital in East Jerusalem, where her body had been kept since a memorial service Thursday. The large crowd of mourners displayed Palestinian flags and reportedly chanted Palestinian nationalist slogans.
As mourners carried the coffin containing Abu Akleh’s body, in procession to the Melkite Catholic Cathedral of the Annunciation, where a funeral liturgy would take place, Israeli riot police assaulted pallbearers and other mourners, eventually shooting rubber bullets, using stun grenades to disperse the crowd, and beating pallbearers with batons.
The NY Times reported that police warned the crowd to stop chanting as the funeral procession began, and that plastic bottles were thrown toward police, before police rushed toward mourners.
Israeli police initially said that mourners, whom they described as rioters, threw stones at police officers before police responded with force. Video released by the Palestinian Authority’s news agency shows police entering the hospital.
A police spokesman later said officers were trying to stop a foot procession of Abu Akleh’s body through the streets of East Jerusalem; police said they had previously agreed with Abu Akleh’s family that it would be transported in a hearse.
Abu Akleh’s brother told the Associated Press Monday that pallbearers were going to place his sister’s casket into a car “when police attacked us.”
He added that police had expressed concern that mourners would chant pro-Palestinian phrases and wave Palestinian flags, “but this is something we cannot control.”
Abu Akleh’s casket was placed in a car after violence began, and driven to the Melkite cathedral for her funeral.
East Jerusalem is mostly inhabited by Palestinians; many residents claim it as occupied Palestinian territory, while Israel says the area is part of its capital. Previous demonstrations of Palestinian nationalism in East Jerusalem have led to clashes with Israeli police.
Abu Akleh’s death last Wednesday has been a source of explosive tension in the region. The reporter was shot in the head during an Israeli Defense Force counterterrorism raid of a refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin, where IDF forces have aimed to arrest several suspects it says are Islamic jihadists connected with terrorist attacks in Israel.
Palestinian Authority’s public prosecutor said last week that forensic evidence demonstrated that Abu Akleh was deliberately shot by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank city of Jenin, while Israeli military officials say it is “not possible to unequivocally determine the source of the gunfire.”
The Israeli Army has recognized it is possible that Abu Akleh was shot by IDF soldiers, but requested to examine the bullet that killed her in order to continue investigating.
Palestinian Authority officials have not given Israel access to the bullet.
Violence in Israel and the West Bank has escalated in recent months; 19 Israelis and foreigners have been killed in recent Palestinian or Arab attacks, and 30 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli military and counterterrorism operations in the West Bank, according to the NY Times. Gaza militants fired a rocket into Israeli airspace last month for the first time since January.
The International Federation of Journalists and other journalism trade groups have accused Israel in recent months of targeting journalists, which the IDF denies.
Abu Akleh was a Melkite Catholic, part of an Eastern Catholic Church which traces its origin to early Antiochian Christians in modern-day Syria, who by tradition were first evangelized by St. Peter.
While the Antiochian Church maintained communion with Constantinople after the schism of 1054, some Melkites maintain that their church has not historically broken communion from Rome. But there was a split among Antiochian Christians in 1724, in which some were formally unified to the pope, forming the modern Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Some Melkites say their Church in recent centuries has resisted liturgical Latinization in the Holy Land, while aiming to foster communion among Christians.
There are nearly 1.6 million members of the Melkite Catholic Church, and, as of 2017, there were more than 80,000 in Israel and Palestine. Before the 1948 Arab-Israel War, the population of Melkites in the Holy Land was much larger; many have since dispersed from the region, and many members of the Melkite Church live now in North and South America.
Archbishop Pizzaballa has spoken frequently on behalf of Palestinians during his six years as leader of Latin Catholics in the region, but is also known to have mostly positive relations with Israeli political leaders.
The religious and ethnic concerns in Israel, across the Holy Land, and especially Jerusalem, often mean religious leaders like the patriarch aim to carefully balance interventions on controversial issues, making Pizzaballa’s statements on Abu Akleh’s funeral all the more noteworthy.
In addition to internal tensions in the country, the Holy See has a complicated relationship with the Israeli state, in which Vatican officials usually aim to balance interreligious engagement with the Jewish people with Vatican concerns over human rights issues for Arabs, including Christian Arabs, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Father Thomas Grysa, the chargé d’affaires of the Holy See’s delegation to the Holy Land, issued his own blunt statement Monday on the events at the funeral, which he said "very brutally violated" the "right to religious freedom."
“This constitutes a moment of tension between Israel and the Holy See,” Grysa said, “even though perhaps it is not the first."
The right to religious freedom, he said, is “included in the fundamental agreement between Israel and the Holy See.”