The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has denied culpability over the deaths of two Christian Palestinian women who were reportedly killed at the Holy Family Parish complex in Gaza on Saturday morning.

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said on Saturday morning that “around noon” on Dec. 16, a sniper of the IDF “murdered two Christian women inside the Holy Family Parish in Gaza, where the majority of Christian families has taken refuge since the start of the war.” Several others were also shot, the statement said.

“No warning was given, no notification was provided,” the patriarchate said. “They were shot in cold blood inside the premises of the parish, where there are no belligerents.”

In an emailed statement to CNA, the IDF said that it had received the letter “describing a tragic incident that took place in the Holy Family Parish.” 

On Saturday, “representatives of the church contacted the IDF regarding explosions that were heard near the church,” the IDF said.

“During the dialogue between the IDF and representatives of the community, no reports of a hit on the church, nor civilians being injured or killed, were raised.” 

“A review of the IDF’s operational findings support this,” the statement said.

The IDF did not respond to a follow-up query asking explicitly if the army was refuting or challenging the reports that an IDF sniper killed two women at the parish. 

The IDF’s statement comes after Pope Francis issued a sharp condemnation of the alleged attack following his Sunday Angelus on Dec. 17.

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“I continue to receive very serious and painful news from Gaza. Unarmed civilians are subjected to bombings and shootings,” the Holy Father said.

“And this even happened inside the parish complex of the Holy Family, where there are no terrorists, but families, children, sick and disabled people, nuns,” he said.

“Yes, it’s war, it’s terrorism,” the pope said. 

In the aftermath of Saturday’s reported attack, other Catholic leaders weighed in, including Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, who said in a Saturday statement that the bishops were calling “for an immediate cessation of all hostilities, the release of hostages, and for earnest negotiations towards a peaceful resolution of this conflict.”

“We resolutely join our voices with the Holy Father, Pope Francis, reminding all parties in this conflict that war is never the answer but always a defeat,” Broglio, also the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in the statement. “We plead, ‘peace, please peace!’”

Also speaking out was Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster and the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, who took to social media to express his “horror” at the events. 

“I am heartbroken at the information provided by Cardinal [Pierbattista] Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, of killings in the church compound of the Catholic Parish of the Holy Family in Gaza City,” the cardinal said in a statement.

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“I have immediately sent a message to His Eminence expressing my horror at these events and assuring him of the prayers of Catholics in England and Wales,” he said. 

The patriarchate’s statement “gives a picture of seemingly deliberate and callous killing by IDF soldiers of innocent civilians: an elderly woman and her daughter in the grounds of a church,” he said. 

“This killing has to stop. It can never be justified.”

In an interview with the British outlet Sky News on Monday, Nichols said he did not believe the denial from the IDF, calling it “hard to believe.” 

“[T]he people in Gaza and the cardinal archbishop of Jerusalem, they’re not given to tell lies,” he said.

While stopping short of joining the pope’s characterization of the attack as ”terrorism,” the cardinal said: “It’s certainly a coldblooded killing, that’s the description that is given.” 

Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, disputed the cardinal’s remarks during a live interview on Sky News on Monday, saying: “I would reject the categorization of the words he used: ‘coldblooded killing.’ That would indicate a deliberate targeting of civilians; that’s something we don’t do.” 

“We don’t shoot people who are going to church, that just doesn’t happen. That’s not the way the IDF operates,” he added. 

“To say that Israel is deliberately targeting Christian worshippers, that’s a terrible accusation that is unfounded.”