High-level delegation of bishops to visit Mideast in bid for ceasefire

London, UK - Senior Roman Catholic bishops today announced plans for a high-level delegation to Israel and the West Bank as Christian leaders across the churches spoke out against the conflict and called for an immediate ceasefire.

The Archbishop of Liverpool, the Most Rev Patric Kelly, will this month lead a delegation of Catholic bishops from Europe and North America to Bethlehem and Jerusalem in an attempt to bolster the region's dwindling Christian population.

Bishop William Kenney (pictured above, left), an auxiliary in the Archdiocese of Birmingham, who will be a member of the group, said: "The engagement of the Catholic Church in the crisis in Gaza is of the utmost importance because violence does not solve problems. What the Church can offer is alternative values. The plight of ordinary people - men, women and children of all ages - must be placed at the centre of this ongoing conflict rather than the political power and prestige of either side. "Our presence in the Holy Land at this critical time expresses our solidarity with the local Christians."

The Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, the Right Rev Suheil Dawani, whose diocese has one of 11 hospitals serving 1.5 million residents in the Gaza strip, described the conflict as a "great tragedy". Hospital staff are working round the clock, he said.

"During the best of times they are stretched to their maximum meeting the medical needs of this populous community. Now, during the current military conflict with its heavy toll on human life and material, the hospital faces even greater responsibilities and challenges," he said. "The result is growing strain on the hospital's resources."

He said the hospital is receiving between 20 and 40 injured patients a day, a large number needing surgery. About one quarter of these are children, suffering injuries include burns and crippling psychological trauma, he said. "The hospital's windows have all been blown out or shattered from rocket and missile concussion and cold permeates the entire premises. Plastic sheeting to cover the windows could alleviate some of the cold but is unavailable now. Food supplies are scant throughout the Gaza strip and maintaining patients' nutritional needs at the hospital has been difficult, especially for the most vulnerable."

The Christian charity World Vision said in a statement: “It is the most vulnerable – children and other civilians – who experience the greatest suffering in these situations. Furthermore, an untold number of children in Gaza and southern Israel live in fear as a result of the broken ceasefire.

“We mourn for all those killed and are deeply concerned with the lasting impact of this violence on the affected populations."

Among the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire is the small Christian community in Gaza. “They (Christians) are not part of Hamas, they’re not Israelis or they’re not Jewish, they’re not Muslim, they’re Christians,” said Dr Carl Moeller, head of Open Doors in the US to The Christian Post.

Dr Moeller, whose organisation works to help the persecuted church, acknowledged that Hamas provoked the attack by firing rockets into Israel but said the amount of return damage was "unbelievable".

“So many unarmed women and children are being killed,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine this is just a response to rocket attacks to Israel.“

“I think it’s really part of a larger plan of Israel to once and for all eradicate Hamas as a military force.” He warned that Israel’s plan might backfire if it sends the citizens of Gaza into the arms of Hamas.