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Israel-Palestine war: Archbishop of Canterbury calls for Gaza ceasefire in break from UK policy

Justin Welby tells MEE 'all bombings of civilians is wrong' as Church of England signs onto statement that contradicts Rishi Sunak's approach
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in London, on 7 February (AFP)
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in London, on 7 February 2023 (AFP)
By Peter Oborne in Jerusalem

In a break from official British policy, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby on Sunday issued an urgent call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and an end to Israel's bombing of civilians.

The archbishop joined forces with other Christian leaders in Jerusalem to demand an "immediate humanitarian ceasefire so that food, water, and vital medical supplies can safely be delivered to the relief agencies ministering to the hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians in Gaza".

The statement from the leader of England's state church directly contradicts the policy of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who last week ordered Britain to abstain on a United Nations ceasefire resolution.

However, it aligns the Church of England with the estimated 100,000 demonstrators who marched through London on Saturday calling for an immediate end to the Israeli bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip.

On 7 October, hundreds of Palestinian fighters attacked Israeli communities near the boundary with Gaza, killing around 1,400 Israelis. More than 200 Israelis were taken captive and taken back to Gaza in the Hamas-led assault.

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Since then, Israel has waged a relentless bombing campaign on the coastal enclave, killing more than 4,300 Palestinians. The majority of casualties on both sides have been civilians, many of them children.

The archbishop's strongly worded call for a ceasefire, issued jointly with the patriarchs and heads of several Jerusalem churches, opens an unprecedented rift between Britain's political and religious establishment over the Gaza war. 

It comes after a strike on Thursday night on a 1,600-year-old church, where an Israeli bomb hit an annex sheltering Palestinians. Eighteen people, including nine children, were killed in the attack.

The church leaders' statement expressed "in the strongest possible terms, our condemnation of the Israeli air strikes that exploded without warning at the Orthodox church compound of Saint Porphyrios in Gaza".

"We cannot ignore that this is but the latest instance of innocent children being injured or killed as a result of missile strikes against other shelters of last resort," it added.

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The statement continued: "Among these are schools and hospitals where refugees had fled because their homes were demolished in the relentless bombing campaign waged against residential areas in Gaza over the past two weeks.

"We call upon all warring parties to de-escalate the violence, cease from indiscriminately targeting civilians on all sides, and operate within the international rules of warfare."

Speaking to Middle East Eye after communion at the Sunday service at St George's Anglican Cathedral in occupied East Jerusalem, Welby said that "all bombings of civilians is wrong. We have already called for a ceasefire and safe humanitarian passage."

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He added: "Everyone knows how difficult and chaotic wars are. The essential is that the principals of just fighting a war and the discrimination principal between combatants and non-combatants is held to really, really strictly. In an urban environment it's hard to exaggerate how hard that is but also how necessary that is."

Asked if Israel should delay its planned ground offensive in Gaza to allow time to free more captives, the archbishop said it was not for him to say.

On Friday, Hamas released two US citizens, and claimed the next day it had been prevented from releasing two more by Israel, which the Israelis denied.

Earlier on Sunday, the archbishop had served communion to approximately 150 worshippers at St George's Anglican Cathedral.

During his sermon, he condemned deadly Israeli settler attacks on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, as well as bombing in Gaza. The service was taken by the archbishop at the end of a three-day visit to Jerusalem.

Among the church leaders who supported the statement were Theophilos 111, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem; the Latin Patriarch Fuad Twai; and the Armenian and Coptic patriarchs.

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