Israel Strike on Gaza Church Was a War Crime, Says Human Rights Group

The Chicago-based human rights organization Justice For All has filed a submission with the International Criminal Court (ICC) arguing that the Israeli military’s partial destruction of the Saint Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza City last October constitutes a war crime. 

Situated in Gaza’s Old City, the Saint Porphyrios Church is considered one of the oldest functioning churches in the world, characterized by its thick limestone walls and an ornately decorated interior featuring painted ceilings and gold-leaf iconography. Consisting of a chapel, seven buildings, and a courtyard, the church complex is not only an important house of worship for Palestinian Christians, but has also historically functioned as a sheltering space for displaced Palestinians. 

On October 19, the compound was targeted by Israeli airstrikes, killing at least 16 people and injuring approximately 20 others. In a statement, an associated order of the church confirmed that the strike “hit the two church halls where the refugees, including children and babies, were sleeping.” It is one of dozens of structures including mosques, museums, universities, and heritage sites that have been damaged or outright eviscerated by the Israeli military since Hamas’s October 7 assault. Over the past six months and counting, Israeli hostilities have killed upwards of 34,000 Palestinians across Gaza.

“The destruction of Saint Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church is not just an attack on a building but an assault on the spiritual and cultural heritage of the Palestinian Christian community, contributing to their genocide,” Justice for All President Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid said in a statement, adding that “if this church had been anywhere else in the world, there would have been a global uproar.”

Now, Justice For All is demanding that Israel’s attacks on the church and Palestinian cultural heritage be investigated by the international community for allegedly violating the Rome Statute, the resolution that led to the ICC’s creation in 2002. The ICC specifically deals with the most serious crimes concerning the global community as a whole, such as crimes against humanity and genocide.

The deliberate destruction of cultural sites was recognized as a war crime in 2016 during the ICC’s trial focusing on heritage demolishment in Timbuktu, Mali. The following year, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the “unlawful destruction” of heritage sites and illicit smuggling of cultural artifacts. 

Hena Zuberi, Justice For All’s advocacy director, explained to Hyperallergic that the organization’s recent submission regarding the destruction of Saint Porphyrios is just one in a “series of filings” sent to the ICC. In February, the organization filed a submission arguing that the deliberate destruction of the Al-Omari Mosque in Gaza City also constituted a war crime. 

While these cases generally take a long time for the ICC to process, Zuberi said that she suspects there has been “some movement” given the Israeli government’s recent public comments raising concerns that the court may issue arrest warrants for Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“It’s imperative that the international community stands firm in protecting the places of worship of minorities, ensuring these sanctuaries are preserved amidst conflict,” Mujahid said.

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