by Gina Christian
(OSV News) — An attack on a Christian hospital in Gaza amid the Israel-Hamas war has left staff at the U.S. offices of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association reeling.
“Disbelief and horror,” Michael La Civita, director of communications for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, told OSV News, describing his reaction just hours after an Oct. 17 strike on al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza.
The facility, a humanitarian outreach of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, is Gaza’s oldest hospital, and the only Christian one in the enclave. Opened in 1882, al-Ahli Arab — which was a Baptist Medical Mission from 1954 to 1982 — has been “one of the most important institutions in our network of partners for decades,” said La Civita. “It’s a significant player in the region.”
CNEWA, founded by Pope Pius XI in 1926, supports the hospital as part of its overall mission to support the Catholic Church in the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe.
Joseph Hazboun, regional director for CNEWA’s Jerusalem office, said the hospital was sheltering more than 5,000 people at the time of the strike.
Causes and casualties have been contested by both sides. Palestinian officials claimed the al-Ahli Arab Hospital had been struck by Israel, killing some 500, while the Israel Defense Forces countered that intelligence showed the blast was due to a failed rocket launch by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group.
The war itself was sparked by Hamas’ Oct. 7 ambush — coinciding with a Sabbath and Jewish holiday — on some 22 locations in Israel. Hamas members gunned down civilians and took at least 199 hostages, according to Israel, including infants, the elderly and people with disabilities.
Israel declared war on Hamas Oct. 8, placing Gaza under siege and pounding the region with airstrikes as Hamas has returned fire. To date, some 1,400 in Israel, including at least 30 U.S. citizens, and at least 3,500 in Gaza have been killed, according to Palestinian officials. The ensuing humanitarian crisis has left the Middle East “on the verge of the abyss,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.
CNEWA, which has had a presence in Gaza since at least 1949, has “a long record of support. . . with (the) hospital, particularly with programs that provide assistance to children and families suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders,” La Civita told OSV News.
He described hospital director Suhaila Tarazi as coming from a “tremendous, socially responsible family.”
The part of the hospital that was hit “is where most of our psychosocial programs over the last few years were organized,” said La Civita.
At an Oct. 18 press conference by the Jerusalem patriarchs and heads of churches, Jerusalem Anglican Archbishop Hosam Naoum told media that a few hours before the attack, civilians who had gathered in the courtyard (of the hospital) were “singing for peace, and the children were playing,” but “two hours later they were all struck by. . . the power of death.”
On Oct. 14, al-Ahli Arab Hospital’s diagnostic cancer treatment center in Gaza City was struck by Israeli rocket fire, significantly damaging the ultrasound and mammography wards and injuring four staff, according to the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem.
Archbishop Naoum said al-Ahli Arab would “continue to be open” as he and fellow church leaders “are determined to keep our institutions open, to keep our places of worship, our churches, open. . . as places of sanctuary.”
La Civita told OSV News he is “very concerned about the future (and) the present” of two maternity clinics subsidized for decades by CNEWA and operated by the Near East Council of Churches in Gaza.
He and his team are “staying as close to the story (and) to our people on the ground” as possible, La Civita said.
He urged the faithful to pray and to “stay informed,” particularly by consulting Catholic media coverage of the situation.
“We want Catholics in particular to be paying attention to Catholic news about this, because. . . it’s about as close to the truth as we can possibly get,” he said. “It’s reliable and objective.”
In addition, “consider providing support to those who can handle aid responsibly and get it to the hands of those who need it most,” said La Civita.