Destruction of a Historic Gaza Church Deemed a ‘War Crime’ in New Legal Filing

Justice For All has called for an investigation into the intentional targeting of cultural heritage in Gaza.

Gaza City's Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius, damaged in Israeli bombardment on October 19, 2023. Photo: AFP via Getty Images.

The Chicago-based human rights organization Justice For All has declared the destruction of Saint Porphyrius Church in Gaza to be a war crime in a new legal filing submitted to the International Criminal Court (ICC). At the time that the Greek Orthodox church was targeted by Israeli missiles on October 19, it was being used as a refuge and shelter by hundreds of Palestinians. At least 18 died, including a three-month-old baby, and the building was partially destroyed.

The third oldest functioning church in the world, it was first established in the early 400s to house the tomb of Saint Porphyrius, the bishop of Gaza between 395 and 420 C.E. It was rebuilt in the 12th century and has been renovated several times since. Over the centuries, it has served as a site of worship and community gathering for Gaza’s Christian minority of some 1,000 people.

The document filed by Justice For All outlines how the attack on the church violated the Rome Statute, the ICC’s treaty established in 1998 that establishes four core international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. In the case of Saint Porphyrius Church, the group focused on the intentional attack on a non-military structure, which resulted in unwarranted impact on both civilian lives and cultural heritage.

the nave of a church with painted blue walls covered in painted religious scenes with pews and a carpet running along the middle and a chandelier hanging down, you can see a wooden altarpiece behind

The inside of Saint Porphyrius Church on June 18, 2013 located in the Zaytun Quarter of Gaza City, Gaza. Photo: Craig Stennett/Getty Images.

This goes against 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,” said Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, president of Justice For All, in a press 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.”

After the church was destroyed, Israel Defense Forces told the Washington Post that a strike targeting a Hamas control center “damaged the wall of a church in the area” and that it was “aware of reports on casualties” and was reviewing the incident. “It is important to clarify that the Church was not the target of the strike,” the statement continued.

Israel’s military and government have been accused of making false and misleading statements to cover up and deflect responsibility for war crimes before. Justice For All’s filing calls on the ICC to launch an international investigation into the act of destruction and hold its perpetrators accountable.

The ICC did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

In a document outlining its stance on the destruction of cultural heritage during war, the ICC noted its importance as a “testimony of the culture and identities of peoples”, adding that “the degradation and destruction of cultural heritage – whether tangible or intangible – constitutes a loss to the affected communities, as well as to the international community as a whole.”

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