ROME – Jerusalem’s Christian churches came together to condemn the scenes of Israeli police beating mourners during the funeral of a Palestinian-American journalist who was shot and killed in the field, allegedly by Israel Defense Forces (IDF). They called the police violence an attack on religious freedom.
The statement was signed by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa; the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III; “and the faithful of the Christian Churches in the Holy Land.”
Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, a veteran journalist of Al Jazeera and a Catholic, was reportedly killed by the IDF while she was covering the army’s storming of Jenin refugee camp on the morning of May 11 in the occupied West Bank. She was wearing a blue vest clearly marked “Press.”
Abu Akleh was a respected and familiar face on Al Jazeera Arabic and a household name across the Arab world, known for her coverage of the harsh realities of Israel’s open-ended military occupation of the Palestinian territories, now in its 55th year. She was widely recognized in the West Bank and was a U.S. citizen.
“We hereby 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,” says the statement released on Monday, and read by Pizzaballa in the St. Joseph Hospital.
Father Thomas Grysa, the chargé d’affaires of the Vatican’s delegation to the Holy Land, speaking at the same press conference, said that the police had “violated in a very brutal way” the right to “religious freedom.”
“This episode constitutes a moment of tension between Israel and the Holy See, even if it is not the first,” he said, according to Italian news agency ANSA.
The statement from the patriarchates says that 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.
“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,” says the statement.
The St. Joseph Hospital is owned by the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, a French-founded congregation that has been present in the Holy Land for nearly 200 years. It was described in the statement as an institution that has “proudly” been a place of encounter and healing for everyone, regardless of their religious or cultural belonging.
Israeli police have vowed to investigate the chaotic incident, which was broadcast live worldwide and sparked widespread condemnation, including from the United States, European Union and United Nations. The police have also vowed to investigate Abu Akleh’s death, which eye witnesses have said was caused by a single gunshot to her head, reportedly coming from the Israeli military.
Israeli police have claimed that they had agreed with Abu Akleh’s family that there would be no nationalistic slogans nor Palestinian flags in the funeral procession.
However, the Associated Press reported that Abu Akleh’s brother, Anton, disputed those claims. He said Monday that the family had given the funeral arrangements to Israeli police, and said the police did not want slogans or Palestinian flags. But he said “this is something we cannot control.”
Anton, who was one of the pallbearers, said police also wanted to know the funeral route, but there was no other agreement. “We wanted to put the coffin in the car,” he said. “We were going to the car when they attacked us.”