London (RNS) — Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby described reports of hundreds of deaths after an attack on an Anglican hospital in Gaza on Tuesday (Oct. 17) as “devastating.” The archbishop spoke as news emerged of the rocket attack on al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, that has left as many as 500 people dead and others injured, according to multiple reports.
“This is an appalling and devastating loss of innocent lives,” said Welby, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion and primate of the Church of England. The Associated Press confirmed that video footage showed fire engulfing the hospital and bodies scattered across the grounds, including those of children.
The hospital building was not only being used by medics and patients but was packed with Palestinians seeking shelter after evacuation orders from Israel. The rocket attack follows 10 days of conflict between Israel and Hamas after the Oct. 7 assault by Hamas militants on Jewish settlements, in which 1,400 Israelis died and 200 people were taken hostage. Palestinian officials reported Tuesday that more than 2,800 Palestinians have been killed and 10,000 others have been wounded in the days since.
Welby spoke out after first reports emerged that the hospital had been hit by an Israeli rocket, according to Palestinian officials. The Israeli military has denied the strike was theirs, accusing a Palestinian militant group of launching a rocket that malfunctioned and hit the hospital. Neither report has been verified.
The hospital attack has raised tensions even further in Israel and Gaza, with the planned visit of U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday now in jeopardy. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he is canceling Wednesday’s meeting with Biden following the hospital strike.
Among the first to denounce the attack was Richard Sewell, dean of the Anglican St. George’s College, in Jerusalem. “Disaster: our hospital, Ahli Arab hospital has taken a direct hit from an Israeli missile,” he posted on X, formerly Twitter.
“This is deliberate killing of vulnerable civilians. The bombs must stop now. There can be no possible justification for this.”
Welby had previously urged that the Israelis reverse their demand for hospitals in Gaza to be evacuated. “The seriously ill and injured patients at the Anglican-run Ahli Hospital — and other healthcare facilities in northern Gaza — cannot be safely evacuated,” he warned in a statement on Sunday. “They are running low on medical supplies. They are facing catastrophe.
“I appeal for the evacuation order on hospitals in northern Gaza to be reversed — and for health facilities, health workers, patients and civilians to be protected,” he said.
On Tuesday evening, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, issued a statement urging prayer following the attack on the hospital.
“My heart aches when I remember visiting al-Ahli hospital in 2018 during Holy Week to meet the medical teams and all the people of that remarkable ministry. They were passionately committed to anyone who had need,” Curry said in his statement.
In the days since the conflict began, American Episcopal leaders have been encouraging people to donate to the work of al-Ahli Hospital through the American Friends of the Diocese of Jerusalem. In an Oct. 15 statement, bishops of the Diocese of New York praised the work of the hospital and of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, as without “a political agenda” and in service to “Christian, Jew and Muslim alike through hospitals and schools and shelters, and at no cost.”
This is the second time in four days the hospital has been hit. On Saturday, the Diagnostic Cancer Treatment Center of the hospital was hit by an Israeli rocket. Two upper floors of the center, which houses the ultrasound and mammography wards, were severely damaged. Four hospital staff members were injured in that blast and are receiving treatment for their wounds.
“The Diagnostic Centre is the Crown Jewel of Ahli Hospital, providing cancer diagnosis as a prelude to various treatment options both at Ahli and in other facilities,” the Anglican archbishop of Jerusalem, Archbishop Hosam Naoum, told the Anglican Communion News Service at the time. “Next month, we were due to open a new chemotherapy centre there in partnership with Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives — a principal reason for our visit to the hospital last week.”