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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS OP-ED

SA Catholic Bishops condemn war in Gaza and ask Israeli ambassador hard-hitting questions

SA Catholic Bishops condemn war in Gaza and ask Israeli ambassador hard-hitting questions
President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka. (Photo: Supplied)

On the eve of his departure for Israel, ambassador to South Africa Eliav Belotsercovsky received a forthright letter from the President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka.

Israel recalled its ambassador “for consultations” after strong criticism by the South African government about the situation in Gaza.

Bishop Sithembele Sipuka wrote to the ambassador expressing his concern – and that of the Bishops’ Conference – over the war in Gaza.

On 16 October 2023, in a statement, Sipuka called for a de-escalation of the fighting and peace. He asked that a humane way be found to deal with the situation in which further suffering and death would be eliminated.

Now, in the letter to the ambassador, Bishop Sipuka expresses serious concerns about Israel’s ongoing actions. “As you take your leave of South Africa for consultation in your country, we wish to convey serious concerns about the war in Gaza and violence and death in other parts of Palestine, and we ask you to raise these concerns with your authorities.”

“Why are the international laws of war not heeded by your government?” he bluntly asks the ambassador.

Sipuka goes on to say, “You are responsible for guarding against harming civilians even as you defend yourself against Hamas, and that is why, Mr Ambassador, we are calling you to explain.”

“The engagement with your government through you, Mr Ambassador, is that despite the evident and apparent human crisis caused by your government’s manner of dealing with this situation and despite calls from millions of people, including some of your citizens, to a ceasefire, your government is not listening. Instead, it is escalating the bombardment, which, according to media reports, is causing the death of a child in Gaza every ten minutes.”

Bishop Sipuka said that the “escalating bombardment of Gaza by the Israeli army in response to Hamas’ act of violence, murder and abduction of Israeli citizens on the 7th of October 2023 daily confronts us with its deadly consequences for Palestinian civilians, many of whom are children”. He says that what Hamas did “cannot be justified”. However, he adds, “two wrongs don’t make a right”.

“If the intention of your government is indeed to eliminate the people of Palestine from the land of their birth by killing and displacing them, to state the obvious, Mr Ambassador, that is not right,” the bishop writes.

“If, however, the elimination of the Palestinian people is not your intention, please explain these acts of your army against the Palestinians, which many people, including legal experts, view as bordering on genocide, if not genocide itself.”

“It is a crime against humanity, and we ask that you stop it immediately and notify us of the means you are taking to stop it,” Sipuka says.

The Bishops’ Conference released the letter, dated 21 November, on Saturday, 25 November. Sipuka told the ambassador the bishops would expect “your full response beyond the courteous acknowledgement of our letter”.

He also told the ambassador that the letter would be made public “and your response (or lack of it) to the letter will also be made public”.

No response from the ambassador was released with the letter.

For Christians, the Holy Land is an important geographical place. It is where, ironically, Jesus Christ, the “Prince of Peace” was born. Hence, Bishop Sipuka says, “All Catholics in the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference area are praying for peace in the Holy Land.”

Days after the war began, South African Cardinal Stephen Brislin, in a letter, called for prayers for peace, saying that “the particular situation in the Holy Land is of special concern” because “it is the land so spiritually tied to our faith”.

Sipuka writes, “The impetus of our prayer also urges us to engage in this tragic situation, which is becoming more catastrophic daily.” 

He then goes on to ask the ambassador a series of hard-hitting questions: Why is there such a disproportionate and unjustifiable response to the Hamas atrocity? Why are hospitals being bombed without “verifiable evidence that they are used as hiding and operational places for Hamas?”

The bishop continues asking why schools and refugee camps are being targeted and bombed. He writes: “Why is it that the supposed safe south of Gaza to which Palestinians are told to go is bombed?” He also questions the “disproportionate destruction of homes and infrastructure in Gaza in response to Hamas’ crime”.

“Why is it that in the West Bank, there are reported situations of harassment and killing of Palestinians by the Israeli army and settlers?”

Bishop Sipuka ends the letter by telling the ambassador that his country is powerful and supported by powerful governments.

“There is a perception that because of this power, your country listens to what it wants to hear. Hence, you have not heeded the widespread call for a ceasefire.” DM

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  • douglas wade says:

    I await with considerable interest the ambassador’s reply.

  • Pet Bug says:

    I walked out of mass two Sundays ago, when the priest dissed the Torah.
    I almost walked up to the lectern to ask him to stop. But there were children in the congregation and I wavered. I’m now sorry I didn’t confront the antisemitic sermon.

    • Denise Smit says:

      The whole letter is anti-semitic. You should have done it. The mass disinformation campaign of Gaza and it’s allies ( which are many falling into their trap) is working overtime

    • dexter m says:

      can you provide the name of the Parish ,i would like to get a copy of the priests sermon . I have been not been to church in ages but still find this hard to believe . i assume the priests still greet parishioners after mass and welcome discussion on the sermon, why did you not do that. My experience priests welcome discussion . proves that at least some of the parishioners were not sleeping .

  • Cornay Bester says:

    Remember the world war 2 “Nazi Pope”

  • Fayzal Mahamed says:

    “Two wrongs don’t make a right” is a gross understatement. In this case it is Hamaz committing one wrong and the IDF responding with ten wrongs.
    This is clearly a religious war between Hamaz and Zionist where barbarism and atrocities abound and reason and humanity gets thrown out of the window.

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      Hamas committed at lease 1400 ‘wrongs’. Most of those were intentionally and deliberately targeted unarmed civilians who were tortured, raped, killed or adducted and held hostage. No country in the world would absorb an attack like that, which if scaled to the population of the US would have been 50k casualties, without absolutely obliterating their enemy. Your ratio of 1 – 10 is very emotive but pretty much without a factual basis as to the best of my knowledge there are few if any reported cases of the IDF deliberately killing civilians during the invasion. The overwhelming majority of the dead, injured and abducted on Oct 7 were civilians and they were the explicit target. If Israel intended to commit genocide in Gaza, the West Bank or Lebanon I can assure you there’d be no way to mistake it for anything else as they have the requisite capability.

      • Terry Hodson says:

        Civilians are being killed in Gaza more quickly “than in even the deadliest moments of U.S.-led attacks in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, which were themselves widely criticized by human rights groups”. 14, 800 Palestinians,at least, have been killed in the 7 weeks of bombardments. And the Israelis want to resume this massacre.

        • Middle aged Mike says:

          Civilians die when military operations are conducted. That’s inevitable. The fact that Hamas’ SOP is to locate themselves in and amongst the civilian population means that more civilians die but that is their objective which I’m pretty sure you must be able to appreciate. Hamas farm martyrs and it’s harvest time.

  • Modise M says:

    Thank you Bishop Sipuka for speaking truth to power. The deplorable actions of Benjamin Netanyahu and his government are shameful. The obstruction of humanitarian aid and cutting off of water supplies to the people of Gaza are war crimes committed by the state of Israel, and are completely unjustifiable.

    • Elia Gideon says:

      What about Putin so the ANC and this bishops condemn Israel but supporting Putin?

      • Modise M says:

        Unless I’m mistaken, at no point did the Bishop endorse Putin or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Bishop correctly questions Israel’s disproportionate destruction of homes and infrastructure in Gaza in response to Hamas’ crime. No amount of whataboutery can obstruct the search for the truth and Netanyahu will one day answer for his crimes.

        • Middle aged Mike says:

          Disproportionate? Are you suggesting that Israel should have raided Gaza, shot 1200 or so civilians and then abducted another 240 or so? Would a proportionate response allow for a slightly higher number? Would they have needed to do a bit of torture and gang rape too? Can you provide an example of a war that was conducted by responding ‘proportionally’ to the actions of the enemy from a source other than Disney?

  • freda says:

    Great letter! I’d like to add a question or two: Why do you lock up so many Palestinians in your prisons, many of them without a specific charge? You seem to imprison at least double the number of those you free in the current agreement. Why do you bully the families, friends and communities of those being released threatening reimprisonment or worse if they don’t behave according to your rules? How long will it take for you to realise that “force” in whatever form will never lead to sustained peace and safety for yourself and others.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    The catholic church has a long history of active antisemtism. A historic low point being when the Vatican had a treaty with Hitler and post WW2 were actively involved in getting a lot of the Nazis involved in the execution of the holocaust down the ‘rat lines’ out of Europe and into South America.

    • John P says:

      Whilst I have issues with the Catholic church both today and in the past you cannot use WW2 activities to accuse Bishop Sipuka of anti-semitism by association. With your logic we must then assume that all Germans must still be guilty today.

      • Middle aged Mike says:

        Ja, I didn’t do any accusing of anything or anyone. I stated some indisputable historical facts which are worth bearing in mind when evaluating the organizations current actions. The rest of what you reacted to you made up.

  • Heinrich Holt says:

    On a daily basis I battle more and more with the concept of religion. We have so many beautiful religions in our world. Most of them are actually in agreement with the basic norms and values of humanity, kindness, and grace. Yet, hundreds of wars were fought about the very few differences, and the very few who decided to become radical about those differences. This exposes our flaw as humans. That we cannot set aside our differences and focus on our agreements. We would rather go to war or at best take sides and demand. Even religious leaders are guilty in doing this. The bishop would do better if he would participate in mediation. But now he chose to take sides. I do not know if pray would work, but I would rather pray for humanity to come to their senses, because most of us lost our basic understanding of what it means, and I am starting to think that institutionalised religion is part of the problem, and not the solution.

  • batting 101 Captain says:

    The audacity of the frog dressed to deceive. How about standing up for the gross abuse and daily murder of innocent South Africans. The daily injustice to the poor. Oh maybe its just a tad to rosy for you, when you do not understand or read the Bible. Deception in the ranks of the diocese. When idiots stand with the regime, I wonder why the sheep are astray.

    • Modise M says:

      Classic case of whataboutism. “He who commits injustice is ever made more wreteched than he who suffers it” – Plato.

      • Middle aged Mike says:

        That’s what you see. What I see is someone who appears to be deeply concerned about the plight of a group of people far away. That’s admirable but it is also noteworthy that he and his organization seem a lot less inclined to write letters to our own government who have presided over a decades long world beating murder rate right here which has put the casualty rates of numerous active war zones to shame. There’s something in there that’s worth questioning.

        • Modise M says:

          The Bishop is correct to be concerned about the plight of a group of people far away. The loss of a life at the hands of another is one too many. Let’s not forget that amongst those murdered by the Israel Defence Force are innocent women and children, and no amount of rhetoric will deflect attention away from Benjamin Netanyahu’s despicable crimes. No matter how you want to slice it, two wrongs don’t make a right.

          • Middle aged Mike says:

            So nothing on their apparent lack of concern with people right here that have been dying like flies for decades? Can you point to an example of the IDF ‘murdering’ women and children? Murder as in the intentional and premeditated killing of same. Where do you see ‘rehetoric’ or ‘deflection’ in what I’ve written?

          • Leslie van Minnen says:

            What about the despicable sub-human Hamas terrorists? Lets hear your point of view on them.

  • Elia Gideon says:

    I hope catholic is from Rome
    And the romans are the one destroyed the solomon temple in 70ad, so i do not wonder by this bishop antisemitism
    Why he is not asking such silly qns to Russia,
    Let him add qn like why children for years are being raped by catholic bishops?
    The ANC and its supporters will be judged by God and by History

    God Bless Israel

  • Moeketsi Moloto says:

    The notion of labelling anyone who has a different view to the Israeli government as anti semitic is unfortunate and disturbing. The opposite of anti is pro. So all of us are forced to be pro Semitic or face very dire consequences. Im an African and Ive lived my entire life under colonialism, apartheid, genocide and deprivation. My live has not changed but Im expected to accept poverty and fourth class citizenship in todays world. The pictures of violence, by western powers, everwhere they go including Palestine and Gaza strikes a common thread that maybe we are just destined to live a life of pittance and oppression. Labelling the Catholic bishop anti semitic is just a mentality of denialism and supremacy. Its only Israel or nothing. The children of light and those of darkness. We can never accept this if we are to create a better world for our grandchildren. Israeli Jews and Arabs , Palestinians and Gazans deserve better from those that know what genocide is. Millions of Africans have been killed and are still being killed. The killers don’t want us to talk about that. We are a loving people & have not used our pain to hurt others. True Jews love Palestinians and Arabs. They too are labelled as unpatrotic sellouts and traitors and not anti semitic. Fellow humans the road to peace in the world will be achieved with Jews and Palestinians finding one another. Calling people terrorists and trying to destroy them will only breed more misery. Mandela was once a terrorist

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      On the assumption that you are in SA, you couldn’t have lived your ‘whole life under apartheid’ much less ‘colonialism’ as a the ANC took power in 2014. By my reckoning that means that you have had just shy of 30 years of living under exactly the opposite of either of those things. Unless your definition of genocide is quite far wide of the dictionary’s you wouldn’t have experienced ‘genocide’ at any point in most SA people’s living memory. I suspect that deep down, or maybe not that deep, you are just more comfortable with the killing of jews than you are with the killing of palestinians.

  • Dov de Jong says:

    The Catholic church’s ingrained Anti Semitism has been well documented for centuries. From Frederick and Isabella, their most Catholic majesties, to Torqemada the Jesuit, in the 15th century, to the Nazi Pope in the 20th. The aid given by the church to escaping Nazi SS officers implicated in the Holocaust after the 2nd world war is well documented. The Bishop would better serve his flock if he addressed scourge of the pedophiles in his church.

  • Tim Price says:

    Delusional religious zealots arguing with each other on all sides.

  • Leslie van Minnen says:

    No comment regarding the rockets fired and baby’s having their throats cut by this man of the cloth. No doubt at his next anti Israeli letter or sermon he will wear the scarf of Hamas. Shame on the church. If you want to criticise then be a bit more objective. I agree with other comments on this page regarding the fact that the Catholic Church supported Hitler ET AL. Take the wood out of your churches eye before you look for the splinter in the eyes of others.
    In fact the Catholic church does not have wood in its eyes, it has an entire forest. Lets just start with the cover up of the sexual and physical abuse of children especially boys over more years then I can count. I spit on these so-called men of the cloth. Preach the good word while having a “GOOD” time with underage children.
    Shame on the Catholic church.

    • dexter m says:

      now really babies having throat cut.. that was IDF propaganda that has already been debunked and retracted by their Foreign Minister. keep up to date .Stop recycling lies.

  • Moeketsi Moloto says:

    Mike the topic is on the current Israeli Palestinian and Gaza crisis. I stand by my words that the killings of civilians whether Jews; Palestinian or anywhere are not going to yield any meaningful results. Human life is precious. Remember all of us have one life; one God given life. No price will replace. Nelson Mandela believed that its bettertotalkuntil we agree. Anyway even if you fight you will endup talking. That applies to the Israeli Palestinian crisis too. The only way to kill the influence of Hamas is to resolve the Palestinian issue. They will have no reason to exist in their current form. I also think in your case genocide applies to Jews only but the dictionary does not say so. You cannot support wholesale killing of civilians just because you are untouchable. Thats the attitude of the Israeli Government. It is not an investment in a sustainable future for Jews. Living through chwckpoints; bombsheters and the irondome. You can get something cheaper and durable wuth just a hug and a handshake. Palestinians are not enemies of Jews but the Right Wing elements want you to believe that. Lets open our eyes and ears. Peace is the way. Labeling people as this and that is just denialism and avoiding accountability. Lastly when the western sponsors realize that its unworkable; Afghanistan ; Iraq or Vietnam will happen. They’ll retreat without shame and not take responsibility. Its starting to happen in Ukraine. We just need peace. Peace

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      Best of luck with that peace thing. It’s not a characteristic of humans to live in peace for any length of time. Jews aren’t going anywhere and hamas’ stated intention is to kill them all and eradicate their state. There’s no negotiating, least of all hugging and handshaking that away. Genocide isn’t specific to Jews as I’m sure you are aware. It’s about trying to exterminate a population and it’s been very popular not least of all on our home continent. What’s going on in Sudan right now is a nice worked example. Hamas founding statement are very clear that genocide is what they are after but they and their handlers in Iran aren’t sufficiently competent to get it right but they sure are trying.

    • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

      Notice the language here by Moeketsi Moloto. Everything is “Jews”. It’s not “Zionists” or “Israelis”. And he isn’t even giving us as much hell as some of the other commentators – he’s basically saying this is terrible, its mostly the Jews fault, but guys give peace a chance. Maybe this is not his first language, but all the more reason to argue that anti-Zionism = antisemitism.

    • Louise Wilkins says:

      Agreed, Moeketsi. Killing of anyone is not going to yield any meaningful results, no matter who they are. Both sides have a point and both sides are at fault.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    The myth about a Nazi Pope in World War 2 was debunked many years ago by Golda Meier and Albert Einstein among others.

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      The vatican conculded a number of treaties (concordants I think they are called) with the Nazi state which provided them cover and protection. Numerous high ranking German catholic priests were members of the Nazi party and there is more than enough documentary, photographic and video evidence of that. Post war the catholic church in various european countries was instrumental, if not critical, in the operation of the rat lines which were used to smuggle large numbers of the nazis who did the hard work of the holocaust to south america. Pope Pius x may not have been a nazi but it’s also abundantly clear that he and his organization weren’t obvioulsy in opposition to it and in many cases were actively supportive. It’s a hell of a stain that doesn’t rinse out easily.

      • Paddy Ross says:

        Thousands of Jews were helped by the Vatican to escape capture. You seem to be admitting that the Pope was not a Nazi. An apology in order for a slanderous remark?

        • Middle aged Mike says:

          Did you read what I wrote? Do you dispute the accuracy of any of it? You’ll find I didn’t claim that he was a Nazi anywhere so an apology you wont be getting here. He was without doubt the head of an organization that actively and officially collaborated with the Nazis during and after the second world war and as such they probably owe an apology if anything.

        • Middle aged Mike says:

          Still waiting for the quote of my ‘slanderous remark’.

  • Mo Sheikh says:

    The bishop should stay out of the Middle East issue – which he clearly knows nothing about and go back to what priests do best – fiddling with kids

  • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

    The following would be interesting to know (perhaps this information is out there):

    1. Is this an official letter, voicing these concerns that are so critical of Israel, sanctioned directly from the Catholic Church (i.e. with the authority of the Vatican), or are these the personal concerns of the South African Catholic clergy in their personal capacities?
    2. Why is one region’s religious clergy (Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference) addressing another (sovereign) state, via their political ambassador, rather than that country / region’s de facto religious clergy representative in the same country (The South African Rabbinical Council), via the Chief Rabbi of South Africa instead? When did we cross the line between church and state? You will get a very well-reasoned, point-by-point response to your letter from there Holy Bishop.
    3. The letter speaks of a “disproportionate and unjustifiable response to the Hamas atrocity”, calling for “a full response beyond the courteous acknowledgement of our letter”. This article goes on to further make the point that no response from the ambassador was released with the letter. Was an equally proportionate letter, with the same ultimatums, also sent to Hamas enquiring about the October 7 massacres and kidnappings, and was any response received?
    4. Finally, Holy Bishop, I would point out two grammatical suggestions in your letter regarding the phrases: “For Christians, the Holy Land is an important geographical place” and “All Catholics in the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference area are praying for peace in the Holy Land”. rather just delete the words “Christians” and “Catholics in the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference area” and simply use the phrase “decent people”. That’ll do it.

    • dexter m says:

      I am confused are your stating that the Chief Rabbi reports to rabbis in Israel and can also speak on behalf of the Israeli Govt.

    • dexter m says:

      I think this was a personal letter of the Bishop. The only official document i got from the Conference was the Oct 16 letter. That was issued by all catholic churches worldwide. The only other official comments on the conflict by the Pope was his comments after meeting the families of the hostages and families of the people killed in Gaza. But Bishops have latitude to go solo, but can hurt their promotion prospects . Like Archbishop Denis Hurley went against Rome’s position on apartheid . Went from one of the youngest person promoted to Archbishop and career died there..

  • dexter m says:

    Wonder if we have any IDF trolls on this site. With Israel losing support of neutrals and previously uninformed of this conflict and the advertising by IDF not making an impact with this demographic worldwide . IDF new unit is now defending on news websites to counter news and op-eds . There aim to keep public focus and attention on Hamas Oct 7 atrocities and not on plight of Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza by Israeli/settler action and keep topics away from context of conflict. Hamas also pushing their propaganda but that directed to the people in the Arab nations in Arabic. We also have the opportunists Russians pushing the Palestinian position and Indian nationalists pushing the Israeli narrative.

    • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

      Interesting how armchair critics like this set themselves up as experts, as if they have intelligence about so-called “IDF new units”, and is if they possess sophisticated demographic data about swings of support from neutrals to their cause (other than sucking it from the ether between their ears). The only significant data these people should be concerned about is the latest Gallup polls (real scientific data BTW) indicating upwards of 75% Palestinian support for the events of 7 October, and also for Hamas in general, from the civilian population of Gaza, and (as of yesterday) – the West Bank. Tells us all we need to know about the so-called “innocents”. Furthermore, since these armchair critics are proclaiming to profess so much intel about the workings of the IDF, how about the fact that Israel is the leading R&D nation in facial recognition and software tracking, and that Shin Bet has been ordered every single operative linked to October 7, as well as those giving them support worldwide, be tracked and eliminated? Remember Munich Olympics 1974, what happened to each of those “operatives” and their support crews, as long as it took?

      • dexter m says:

        My info is from Israeli newspapers . these are not secrets .

        • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

          Quick check of The Times of Israel, Jerusalem Post, YNet News, Israel Hayom, Haaretz, i24 News (6 top Israeli news sources in English – I presume you don’t read Hebrew) – calls nonsense to your sources. My comments can all be verified from here.

          • dexter m says:

            info on IDF was from Israeli newspapers .the other is from polls of individual western countries . The global south that a toss up based on UN general assembly vote, no polls available . On Hamas the last independent poll stated in a election they would receive at best 25 to 27 percent of the vote that is west bank , Gaza and refugees outside occupied territory.

          • dexter m says:

            info on IDF was from Israeli newspapers .the other is from polls of individual western countries . The global south that a toss up based on UN general assembly vote, no polls available . On Hamas the last independent poll stated in a election they would receive at best 25 to 27 percent of the vote that is west bank , Gaza and refugees outside occupied territory.

  • Louise Wilkins says:

    Both sides have a point. Both sides are at fault.
    So much energy being spent in blaming the other.

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