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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

New Legal Filing Deems Bombing of Historic Gaza Church a ‘War Crime’

Chicago-based human rights organization Justice For All has deemed the bombing of the historic Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza by Israel a “war crime” in a new legal filing submitted to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The group has called for an investigation in response.

The church is the oldest active church in Gaza, and the third oldest in the world. Its structure was initially built in the 5th century, though the current iteration was built in the 12th century. It was named after a former bishop of Gaza, Saint Porphyrius, and is the resting place of his tomb.

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Outdoor art installation.

The church has served as an important gathering site for Gaza’s Christian minority, which, according to counts taken before the current conflict, numbered around 1,000 people. 

The legal filing by Justice For All detailed how the air strike on the church violated the ICC’s Rome Statute, a 1998 treaty that establishes four core international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. Per the treaty, those crimes are not subject to any statute of limitations.

The group has accused Israel of intentionally striking Saint Porphyrius Church, a non-military structure, which caused the loss of civilian lives and world heritage, thus violating the statute’s Article 8(2)(b)(ix), which criminalizes the targeting of “buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not military objectives.”

“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,” Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, president of Justice For All, said in a statement. “If this church had been anywhere else in the world, there would have been a global uproar. It’s imperative that the international community stands firm in protecting the places of worship of minorities, ensuring these sanctuaries are preserved amidst conflict.”

Shortly after the attack, the Israel Defense Forces said in an emailed statement to the Washington Post that a strike “targeting a Hamas control center damaged the wall of a church in the area.”

“It is important to clarify that the Church was not the target of the strike,” the statement continued.

That October, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), a UNESCO-affiliated organization, published an appeal for an immediate ceasefire “in order to prevent further loss of human life and safeguard cultural heritage – which is essential to our collective humanity – and reaffirms its commitment to the principles of peace, understanding, and unity through the preservation and protection of cultural heritage.” 

The following month, a preliminary report by the Catalonian NGO Heritage for Peace determined that Israel’s repeated airstrikes on Gaza have “destroyed or damaged” more than 100 cultural landmarks and historic sites, among them the Omari Mosque in Jabaliya in Northern Gaza and the Ibn Uthman and Sayed Hashem Mosques. According to videos and images posted to Facebook by Gazans since October 7, the Rafah Museum, the Al Qarara Cultural Museum, and the Deir Al Balah museum were also damaged by the military campaign.

Since the October 7 attack by Hamas, which killed 1,200 Israelis and took more than 200 hostages, more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli air strikes and ground operations in Gaza, according to the local health ministry.

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