The rubble in Gaza Nov 2023
Palestinians walk among the rubble in the residential area Jabalia camp, north of the Gaza Strip on November 2023. (Photograph by Mohammed Alaswad/APA Images via ZUMA Press Wire)

Topics: UCC in Focus | Human Rights

United Church and National Indigenous Council name Israel-Hamas war a genocide

"The humanitarian crisis that is happening in Gaza at the moment is the focus," says General Secretary Rev. Michael Blair


The United Church of Canada, its General Council Executive and the National Indigenous Council have written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking him to call for a ceasefire and the return of all hostages and referring, for the first time, to the Israel-Hamas war as a genocide.

Rev. Michael Blair, United Church of Canada General Secretary, said the reference is only to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

“The humanitarian crisis that is happening in Gaza at the moment is the focus, not the historic trajectories,” Blair said.

“Israeli government, the Israeli military is perpetuating genocide,” he said. “We are referring to other bodies’ definitions [of genocide].” A General Council communications staff person later clarified that Blair was referencing the United Nations’ definition of genocide, as the General Council was reinforcing the language their partners were using.

The United Nations defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

To date, the United Nations has not called Israel’s bombardment of Gaza a genocide. In a Nov. 16 press release, its legal experts urged the international community to step up to avoid a genocide in Gaza. “Grave violations committed by Israel against Palestinians in the aftermath of 7 October, particularly in Gaza, point to a genocide in the making.”

“Many of us already raised the alarm about the risk of genocide in Gaza,” the experts said. “We are deeply disturbed by the failure of governments to heed our call and to achieve an immediate ceasefire.”

The United Church’s General Council recently approved seven principles to guide its justice work. They include anti-oppression, truth-telling, holistic scope, respect for human dignity, full participation and decolonization, equity, mutuality, respect and reparations, plus costly and prophetic solidarity. Blair said the General Council Executive “didn’t specifically sit down and say Principle A, Principle B. But we are aware of what the principles said, and this gave us latitude to be able to respond in this particular way.”

The decision to send the letter was made in less than an hour, Blair said. It is signed by Rt. Rev. Carmen Lansdowne, United Church moderator, and Leeann Shimoda, chair of the National Indigenous Council, and 47 others representing the executive of the 44th General Council, the National Indigenous Council and The United Church of Canada.

Richard Marceau, vice-president of external affairs and general counsel for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said Israel is not committing genocide. The word has “a very precise meaning in international humanitarian law. And the very important part is: there needs to be intent.”

“It’s just further proof of the United Church’s loss of moral compass and amateur-ness in terms of legal concepts… but also irrelevance,” says Marceau. “If Israel wanted to do a genocide, it would not have told people to leave northern Gaza to not be bombed. It would not have created those humanitarian corridors to have people leave. It shows how ridiculous the accusation is.”

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Marceau points to the leaflets warning of where the rockets would be aimed that Israel dropped on Gaza as well as what he says were thousands of texts and phone calls telling people to move away from certain areas.

“The goal of Hamas is the eradication of the Jewish people both in Israel and around the world. And that is where the United Church should look in terms of genocide.”

Marceau noted Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas leader, appeared on Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation on Oct. 24 to reiterate his message that Hamas intends to annihilate Israel. He threatened many more massacres to achieve that.

And at least one United Church member agrees that using the term “genocide” is inappropriate, and doing so is not “the church’s business.”

“Our business is peace and love and forgiveness and compassion and empathy. And there’s no way this issue in the Middle East will ever solve itself without some empathy between the two sides,” says John Ryerson, social justice activist and a member of the United Church in Toronto.

He believes genocide is a trigger word “used by propagandists… and if you want to de-escalate the emotion so we can talk about a future where people can live together, then you have to take the emotional trigger words out of the conversation.”

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Others believe the United Church is justified and courageous for using the word genocide.

United Church minister Rev. Marianna Harris is pleased the church wrote this letter and named the war as a genocide committed by the Israeli military.

“This has been a long time coming to have such a strong statement,” said Harris, who has visited Israel and Palestine many times and sometimes as the leader of church groups. “It feels more to me like I want the United Church to be, that we’ve made a statement like this.”

Harris, who divides her time between Vancouver and Toronto, believes it will have a positive effect on the church’s partners in Palestine. “That’s one of the most important parts of this… the effect on our partners.”

Harris, a member of the United Network for Justice and Peace in Palestine and Israel (UNJPPI), said she is thinking specifically of Rev. Dr. Muther Isaac, academic dean at Bethlehem Bible College, who has been discouraged over the lack of support from Western churches and the unwillingness to speak about genocide. 

“The use of genocide will tell him that our church is listening to the pleas of Palestinian churches to speak out and to offer spiritual support in a very dark time,” said Harris.


Julie Carl is Broadview’s United Church in Focus Editor.

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  • says:

    The Israeli military is perpetuating a genocide, but the goal of Hamas is to eradicate Israel. Where does the answer to peace lie?
    As long as children are brought up with hatred there can be no peace and as long as they are being taught hatred through their holy writings there can be no reasonable thinking.
    Alas, when one is attacked by one who's aim is solely to eliminate you from the human race, there is little choice.

  • says:

    Genocide has a legal definition. Anyone with the most rudimentary legal education knows that Israel's actions in Gaza are not that - they might not be proportionate, but they are CLEARLY not genocide, as there is no INTENT to do any of the elements mentioned above. None whatsover. On the other hand hamas has in its charter the genocide of Jews, not to mention the practice of killing members of the LBGT people. The United Church leadership has not only lost moral compass - it joined in the woke, intersectional chorus of hamas apologists and whitewashers. Shame on you.

  • says:

    If there is genocide happening in Palestine and Israel it is being perpetrated by Hamas, who have openly declared their intention is to kill all Jews... and their recent sudden terrorist attack on Israel in which they killed babies and raped women in public demonstrated that fact to the world once again. The Israeli military response to rid Gaza of Hamas to defend the citizens of Israel was precipitated by Hamas and bankrolled by militant terrorist Moslem states such as Iran. I am ashamed to have ever belonged to or supported financially the United Church of Canada, and will never again have anything to do with it.

  • says:

    Mr Bem.
    Netanyaho has already said that his goal is to eliminate Hamas which means by his actions the elimination of the Palestinian people in Gaza. Proof-
    1. 20,000 civilians killed by israel.
    2. of that group approx 14000 are women & children.
    3. Tanks have leveled large areas of the major cities killing the civilian occupants.
    4 Israel shelled a U.N school house killing the children & teachers
    5 Israel has shelled refugee camps killing innocent civilians
    5. I see videos of the bodies of women, children & the badly wounded; I don't see images of captured Hamas soldiers.
    My conclusion- Israel wants the land of Gaza for new Kibbutz just as they have taken the West Bank; ie Genocide gives that land to them & Israel is succeeding as Palestinians try to flee from Gaza leaving the land for Mr. Netanyahoo & company. I don't understand why "Jewry" of the world aren't screaming in anger @ Netanyahoo for the ugliness & hatred being engendered against Jewish people by his action.

  • says:

    Why does the world sit back saying tut tut when Israel steadily stole West Bank land & killed rock throwing Young people.
    Perhaps peace would come if we enforced agreements.
    2. Why does the world sit back & grumble distress as Hams killed 1200 civilians & now Israel has killed almost 20,000 civilians with 14,000 of them women & children. We should be barricading Israel & stopping this mass murder but we don't. I suspect but don't know that the tank shells that are flattening whole communities, a school with children & refugee camps may come from OUR munition factories in Quebec. IF we put our foot down re our part in supporting this killing of civilians, I suspect that the genocide would stop.

  • says:

    Such a surprise that Broadview is reporting about the United Church of Canada's high profile accusation of g*****de against Israel. Aside from the vacuous invocation of the G word, can we find a similar attention to contemporary slaughters in Myanmar, Yemen, Nigeria and Sudan etc.? The selectivity is telling and Al Forrest would be happy.