Former US congressman says family members killed in Gaza church blast

The first Palestinian American to serve as a US Congress member said he was grieving after several of his relatives were killed at a Greek Orthodox church in Gaza that authorities report was hit by an Israeli airstrike.

Justin Amash detailed his sorrow over losing family members amid the Israel-Hamas war in a post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

“I was really worried about this. With great sadness, I have now confirmed that several of my relatives … were killed at Saint Porphyrius Orthodox Church in Gaza, where they had been sheltering, when part of the complex was destroyed as the result of an Israeli airstrike,” Amash wrote in a post that pictured whom he identified as two lost family members, Viola and Yara.

The ex-congressman’s post continued: “Give rest, O Lord, to their souls, and may their memories be eternal. The Palestinian Christian community has endured so much. Our family is hurting badly. May God watch over all Christians in Gaza – and all Israelis and Palestinians who are suffering, whatever their religion or creed.”

I was really worried about this. 😔 With great sadness, I have now confirmed that several of my relatives (including Viola and Yara pictured here) were killed at Saint Porphyrius Orthodox Church in Gaza, where they had been sheltering, when part of the complex was destroyed as… pic.twitter.com/w5k1xEeTgF

— Justin Amash (@justinamash) October 20, 2023

Amash later posted a message thanking members of the public for their condolences. And he published a gut-wrenching image of a dead baby being lifted out of rubble, whom he identified as his second-cousin George.

“This beautiful baby committed no crimes, harmed no person,” Amash said.

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Amash has previously said his father was a Palestinian Christian who lived in Ramla until his family was forced out during the Arab-Israeli war in 1948.

The 43-year-old Amash served as a US House representative for Michigan from 2011 to 2021. He was elected as a Republican but declared himself an independent in 2019 after supporting the first impeachment of the party’s leader, then president Donald Trump.

Amash was the first and only Palestinian American in Congress until Rashida Tlaib joined the US House in 2019. Tlaib, a fellow Michigander and progressive Democrat, became the first Palestinian American woman elected to Congress.

On Thursday evening, hundreds of Christians and Muslims were sheltering inside Saint Porphyrius in Gaza City when a missile took down part of the church, killing at least 16 people. The bodies of those killed – including four small children – were wrapped in white sheets and laid out in the church courtyard on Friday for a mass funeral.

The church authority that runs Saint Porphyrius, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said many of those inside at the time of the missile strike were women and children. The patriarchate also accused Israel of targeting churches, which it condemned.

Israel’s military said in response it had damaged “a wall of a church” while hitting a Hamas “command and control center” nearby, but it denied deliberately targeting Saint Porphyrius.

Saint Porphyrius is less than 300 meters (nearly 1,000ft) from the al-Ahli hospital compound where an explosion on Tuesday killed and injured hundreds of people who had fled there to escape Israeli airstrikes.

Israel has blamed the hospital explosion on a failed Palestinian rocket, an assessment that has received US and French backing. Hamas blamed an Israeli missile.

The US estimated between 100 and 300 people died in the hospital courtyard. Hamas-controlled local authorities have said the death toll was nearly 500.

Amash’s lamentation over his late relatives was one of two statements he made on Friday about the war that Israel launched in retaliation for the 7 October attack by Hamas, in which 1,400 were killed as they overran military posts, murdered civilians in their homes and took nearly 200 hostages.

He also commented on Hamas’s release on Friday of two American hostages.

“This is fantastic news,” he wrote. But Amash also said Hamas and its ally Islamic Jihad “need to unconditionally release all hostages of every nationality”.