LONDON: Senior Roman Catholic figures in Jerusalem said Israel “brutally” violated religious freedom in the city after police confronted mourners at the funeral procession of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on Friday.
Police beat people carrying Abu Akleh’s coffin from St. Joseph Hospital and fired stun grenades at the crowd.
Monsignor Tomasz Grysa, the Vatican’s representative in Jerusalem, said the incident violated a 1993 agreement between the Holy See and Israel that “upholds and observes the human right of freedom of religion, which in this case has been brutally violated.”
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Roman Catholic patriarch of Jerusalem, added: “The Israel Police’s invasion and disproportionate use of force — attacking mourners, striking them with batons, using smoke grenades, shooting rubber bullets, frightening the hospital patients — is a severe violation of international norms and regulations, including the fundamental human right of freedom of religion.”
The statements came as part of a series of condemnations made in a press conference at St. Joseph Hospital by the leaders of 15 religious denominations based in the city.
Jamil Koussa, the hospital’s director, said he believed the police targeted Abu Akleh’s coffin, not just the mourners, in an effort to intimidate and “horrify” onlookers.
A number of medical staff were also injured by the police after they stormed the hospital. Dr. Mohammed Hmeidat, who works in the neonatal intensive care unit, told the BBC he was burned by a stun grenade.
“One of them was very close to my feet, and [it] exploded. After that, we hurried to the emergency department and [the police] also followed us [there],” he said.
Israeli law enforcement warned Jerusalem’s religious figures against making “extreme statements, which include assertions about events that are still being examined, only stir up emotions and are not responsible.
“We expect clerics to help calm the area and avoid statements that agitate it.”
Abu Akleh, an Al Jazeera journalist and a Christian, was shot while covering an Israeli military raid in a Palestinian refugee camp in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin on Wednesday.
The Israel Defense Forces initially denied they were responsible for her death, but amid evidence from eyewitnesses that the fatal shot came from IDF personnel, they have since opened an investigation into the activity of their soldiers during the operation.
Israeli police, meanwhile, claimed intervention in her funeral was necessary as the journalist’s family had planned to use a hearse to transport the coffin from the hospital but the crowd had threatened the driver and appropriated the body against their wishes.
“Police were present at the incident to maintain public order and to allow the funeral to take place when there were extremists on the ground who provoked and engaged in an attempt to turn the funeral into a violent event,” the police said in a statement.
However, Abu Akleh’s brother, Tony Abu Akleh, told the BBC: “Everybody saw the pallbearers beaten savagely by batons without any mercy, without any respect to the funeral, to the dead.
“This was a national funeral for all the Palestinians to participate in…[The police] had no business to do [what they did] at the gate.”
Abu Akleh’s niece, Lina, told the BBC: “I honestly was very afraid…because [the police] started throwing stun grenades, and one of them actually threatened to beat me if I don’t move out of the way,” she said.