Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Decries Police Interruption of Slain Journalist’s Funeral

Palestinian Catholic Shireen Abu Akleh, a veteran TV reporter for Al Jazeera, was killed May 11 by an as yet unknown shooter.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, leaves after speaking at a press conference held in St. Joseph Hospital on May 16 in Jerusalem. The archbishop and other religious leaders in the Holy Land condemned the police response leading up to the funeral Mass of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, leaves after speaking at a press conference held in St. Joseph Hospital on May 16 in Jerusalem. The archbishop and other religious leaders in the Holy Land condemned the police response leading up to the funeral Mass of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. (photo: Amir Levy / Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, convened a rare press conference on Monday to decry the “violent intrusion” of Israeli police prior to the funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh, a 51-year-old Catholic Palestinian journalist whose death by an unknown gunman made headlines around the world.  

Akleh, a well-known reporter for the Al Jazeera television network, was killed on May 11 while covering the incursion of Israeli forces in the West Bank city of Jenin. The Israeli troops, who were searching for the terrorists who carried out a spate of terror attacks in recent weeks, were met by groups of Palestinian gunmen.  

Whether Akleh, who also held U.S. citizenship, was killed by an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier or a Palestinian gunmen could not be determined with any certainty, according to the Palestinian medical examiner. But other journalists who were standing close to her when she was shot said she was killed by an IDF sniper.  

Israel has requested a joint Palestinian-Israeli investigation into the killing, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to cooperate with Israel and threatened to bring the case to the International Criminal Court. With no clear forensic evidence to back up Palestinian claims, Yoaz Hendl, Israel’s minister of communications, said that “anyone who claims the IDF killed the journalist is not doing so on the basis of an investigation or facts, but propaganda.” 

U.S. State Department representative Ned Price said that the American government expects an “immediate and thorough” investigation into Abu Akleh’s death. 

At the May 16 news conference, Archbishop Pizzaballa shared a statement co-signed by Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III on behalf of “the faithful of the Christian Churches in the Holy Land.”  

“We hereby condemn the violent intrusion of the Israeli Police into a funeral procession of the slain journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, as it was going from Saint Joseph Hospital to the Greek-Melkite Cathedral Church,” the statement said.  

A Franciscan priests prepares the altar for the funeral Mass for Shireen Abu Akleh at the the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem May 16.(Photo: Hazem Bader)

On Friday, as Abu Akleh’s casket was being carried from Jerusalem’s St. Joseph Hospital in East Jerusalem to a waiting hearse, young Palestinians took hold of the casket and began a funeral procession carrying Palestinian flags and shouting nationalist Palestinian slogans. Some of the mourners threw stones at the Israeli police officers, who were dressed in riot gear.  

Israeli police, who typically maintain order at the Christian funeral processions that sometimes take place in Jerusalem, but do not show up in riot gear, responded with a “disproportionate use of force,” the statement said.    

“Attacking mourners, striking them with batons, using smoke grenades, shooting rubber bullets, frightening the hospital’s patients, is a severe violation of international norms and regulations, including the fundamental human right of freedom of religion, which must be observed also in a public space,” the statement. 

St. Joseph Hospital, whose maternity ward is renowned for welcoming birthing mothers of all faiths, “has always proudly been a place of encounter and healing for all, regardless of their religious or cultural belonging, and it intends to continue,” the statement said.  

What transpired at the hospital “deeply wounded not only the Christian Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition — the owner of the hospital — but all peoples who in that place have found and still find peace and hospitality.”   

Video footage after the event showed heavily armed Israeli police entering the hospital.  

An Israel Police statement challenged the Church’s charges. It said the police had planned a “calm and dignified” funeral in coordination with Abu Akleh’s family but that “about 300 rioters” arrived at St. Joseph hospital and prevented family members from loading the coffin into the hearse.   

“The mob threatened the driver of the hearse and then proceeded to carry the coffin on an unplanned procession to the cemetery by foot, chanting “nationalistic incitement” and throwing stones toward police stationed at the hospital.  

“The policemen were forced to act,” the statement said. 

Ronni Shaked, a Middle East historian at Hebrew University’s Truman Institute, attended the funeral of Abu Akleh; he described the slain journalist as “a good friend.” 

“She was a very brave and honest journalist,” Shaked said. “She had integrity.”  

Shaked said the police were likely acting on orders from the highest echelons of the Israeli government.   

“The way the police behaved was antithetical to democratic values and didn’t ensure public order.” When Palestinians waved Palestinian flags and demanded that Jerusalem is Palestinian, “they wanted to show that Israel is the sovereign government in Jerusalem,” Shaked said.  

Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War and considers all of the city its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of any future Palestinian state. 

In recent years, Shaked said, Palestinian national claims have focused increasingly on East Jerusalem, where the Western Wall, Temple Mount/Al Aqsa compound and Church of the Holy Sepulcher are located, within the Old City of Jerusalem.  

“The Palestinians aren’t just fighting against occupation. They’re fighting for Jerusalem and Al Aqsa,” the historian said.  

In response to the intensifying unrest and violence in Jerusalem, the patriarchs and heads of Holy Land Churches issued a statement just two days before Abu Akleh’s death.  

The developments “violate the sanctity of the people of Jerusalem and of Jerusalem as the City of Peace,” it stated.  

“The special character of Jerusalem, the Holy City, with the existing Status Quo, compels all parties to preserve the already sensitive situation in the Holy City of Jerusalem. The growing tension, backed mainly by right-wing radical groups, endangers the already fragile reality in and around Jerusalem,” according to the Church leaders’ statement.  

The Church leaders called on the international community “to put an end to these provocative actions, as well as to continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”