ROME – A massive and deadly surprise offensive from Hamas in recent days has prompted Israel to declare war, drawing appeals from Pope Francis and church leaders in the Holy Land for calm, and for international intervention to prevent further bloodshed.
At the same time, Israel’s embassy to the Holy See has warned the Vatican to avoid what it described as “linguistic ambiguities” and “parallelisms” that would equate the aggressors in the conflict with its victims.
Speaking to faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his Oct. 8 Sunday Angelus address, Pope Francis said, “I am following with apprehension and pain what is happening in Israel, where violence has exploded even more ferociously, causing hundreds of deaths and injuries.”
“I express my closeness to the families of the victims. I pray for them and for all those who are experiencing hours of terror and of anguish,” he said.
He begged both sides to “please stop the attacks and weapons and understand that terrorism and war do not lead to any solution, but only to the death and suffering of many innocent people.”
“War is a defeat, every war is always a defeat,” he said, and asked faithful to join him in praying for peace in Israel and Palestine.
On Saturday, Oct. 7 Palestinian group Hamas launched a massive surprise attack on Israel, including a barrage of rockets fired from Gaza and gunmen on foot breaching security barriers.
Militants spread videos across social media platforms showing Israelis being gunned down and several being taken hostage.
The assault began at dawn on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, and which marked the 50th anniversary of the assault launched by Egyptian and Syrian forces in 1973 during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur in a bid to retrieve territory Israel had taken obtained during a brief war in 1967.
Mohammed Deif, head of the al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, said after Saturday’s offensive began it was the first phase of “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood,” and that some 5,000 rockets had been fired, with some hitting as far as Tel Aviv.
In northern Israel, Israeli forces engaged in a brief missile exchange with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, eliciting fears of a broader regional conflict. Hezbollah said it had launched mortar strikes from Lebanon into occupied Shebaa Farms, and Israel says it responded with artillery strikes.
In the wake of Saturday’s attack, with intense fighting between Palestinian and Israeli forces continuing in several areas throughout southern Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that the country is “at war.”
Hamas leaders have said they are prepared for further escalation, and the question remains whether Israel will now launch a ground assault in Gaza.
So far, the death toll in Israel is estimated to be around 600, with over 2,000 people injured, according to several Israeli media outlets. Meanwhile, Palestinian officials have said more than 300 people have been killed in Gaza. There has been no official confirmation of the death toll on either side.
In an Oct. 7 statement, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, led by Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who is currently in Rome attending the ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality and who just got his red hat from Pope Francis on Sept. 30, said they awakened to “a sudden explosion of violence that is very concerning due to its extension and intensity.”
“The operation launched from Gaza and the reaction of the Israeli Army are bringing us back to the worst periods of our recent history,” they said, saying the “too many” cycles of violence impacting both Israeli and Palestinian families “will create more hatred and division, and will destroy more and more any perspective of stability.”
They called on the international community and on religious leaders throughout the region and the world to do everything possible “to de-escalate the situation, restore calm and work to guarantee the fundamental rights of people in the region.”
“Unilateral decisions surrounding the status of religious sites and places of worship rattle religious sentiment and fuel even more hatred and extremism. It is therefore important to preserve the Status Quo in all the Holy Places in the Holy Land and in Jerusalem in particular,” they said.
In Israel, the “status quo” refers to an understanding among religious communities regarding nine shared religious sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, as well as a political understanding between political parties and religious communities not to altar the communal arrangement in relation to religious matters.
Tensions between Israel and Palestine have escalated in recent months following Netanyahu’s reelection last year and the formation of his far-right coalition, with many criticizing the inclusion of radical personalities such as Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who in 2007 was criminally convicted for incitement of anti-Arab racism and support for a Jewish militant group.
“The continuing bloodshed and declarations of war remind us once again of the urgent need to find a lasting and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in this land, which is called to be a land of justice, peace and reconciliation among peoples,” the Latin Patriarchate said.
“We ask God to inspire world leaders in their intervention for the implementation of peace and concord so that Jerusalem may be a house of prayer for all peoples,” they said.
The patriarchate also announced that due to the current circumstances, all ceremonies honoring the elevation of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, as a cardinal, have been put on hold until further notice.
Speaking to media outlets in Rome prior to getting his red hat, Pizzaballa acknowledged that a stable peace in the near future was unlikely, and called for constructive efforts in building peace.
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Following Saturday’s attack, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem has organized a daily global prayer gathering via Zoom in the wake of the most recent escalation of violence.
In their own Oct. 7 joint statement, the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem said the city, a sacred place for millions, “is currently mired in violence and suffering due to the prolonged political conflict and the lamentable absence of justice and respect for human rights.”
“We, the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem, have time and again appealed for the importance of respecting the historic and legal Status Quo of the holy shrines,” they said, and called for unity and a remembrance of God’s desire for peace and love throughout humanity.
As those tasked with safeguarding the Christian faith, the patriarchs and church leaders said they stand in solidarity with people in the region, “who are enduring the devastating consequences of continued strife.”
“Our faith, which is founded on the teachings of Jesus Christ, compels us to advocate for the cessation of all violent and military activities that bring harm to both Palestinian and Israeli civilians,” they said.
In its own statement on Saturday, the Israeli Embassy to the Holy See warned against any effort at even-handedness that would put Hamas’s assault on the same moral level with Israel’s efforts at self-defense.
“In these circumstances, the use of linguistic ambiguities and terms that allude to a false symmetry should be deplored,” the statement said.
“The response of Israel cannot be described as anything other than the right of legitimate self-defense,” the statement said. “To suggest parallelisms where they don’t exist isn’t diplomatic pragmatism, it’s just wrong.”