ROME – Wars, especially in the 21st century, are fought on multiple levels. Beyond what happens on the battlefield, there’s also the “soft power” contest to claim the high moral ground, and in that sense, one of the emerging fronts in the bloody conflict in Gaza now pits Israel against the Christian leadership of the Holy Land.
In that standoff, the Vatican for the moment appears caught somewhere in the middle, though over time it’s likely that its position will shift in the direction of the Christian leadership – in part because one of those leaders is their own man on the ground, new Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.
The Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, a body that brings together the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant leadership of the Holy Land, has issued two statements on the conflict so far, both of which have brought swift responses from Israel.
On Oct. 7, the day that Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel triggered the present conflict, the Christian leaders issued a statement saying that “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.”
That language triggered a quick response from the Israeli embassy to the Holy See, which complained of “linguistic ambiguities and terms that allude to a false symmetry.”
“To suggest parallelisms where they don’t exist isn’t diplomatic pragmatism, it’s just wrong,” the embassy said.
The tit-for-tat cycle unfolded again Friday and Saturday, with another statement from the Christian leaders followed by a series of ten posts on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, from Raphael Schutz, the Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See.
“We are witnessing a new cycle of violence with an unjustifiable attack against all civilians,” the church leaders said Oct. 13. “Tensions continue to rise and more and more innocent and vulnerable people are paying the ultimate price as the dramatic level of death and destruction in Gaza clearly show.”
They asserted that Gaza’s population is being deprived of electricity, water, food, fuel and medicine, warning that orders to evacuate the north of Gaza “will only deepen an already disastrous humanitarian catastrophe.” They called upon Israel to allow humanitarian supplies to reach Gaza, and asked all parties to work to deescalate the conflict.
Schutz called the statement “unfair, biased and one-sided.”
“What actually happened was that the ‘circle of violence’ (typical false symmetry expression) started with an unprovoked criminal attack by Hamas + Islamic Jihad (the Patriarchs refrain from mentioning their names) murdering more than 1300 Israelis and from other 35 nationalities,” he said in one post.
“They also raped women, burned babies, beheaded people and took hostages. Simultaneously they launched a wide range missiles and rockets attacks against centers of civil population in Israel – cities, towns, villages, kibbutzim,” he said.
“The only party the patriarchs single out by name with a specific demand is Israel, the party that was viciously attacked a week ago,” Schutz said. “What a shame, especially when this comes from people of God.”
So far, Pope Francis and his top diplomats appear to be striving to remain even-handed.
The pontiff has called for the release of Israeli hostages taken by Hamas and acknowledged Israel’s right to self-defense, comments welcomed by Schutz in an interview with Crux. Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the pope’s top diplomat, also made a short-notice visit Friday to the Israeli embassy to the Holy See, expressing what Schutz described as his “deep sentiments of pain and solidarity on the background of the terrible attack against Israel.”
At the same time, Parolin also gave an interview to Vatican News, the state-sponsored media platform, in which he said that while “it’s the right of an attacked party to defend itself,” he also stressed that “legitimate defense must respect the parameters of proportionality.”
“It’s necessary to recover a sense of reason, to abandon the blind logic of hatred and to refuse violence as a solution,” he said.
On Saturday, the Vatican announced that Parolin had called Mohammad Shtayyeh, the Prime Minister of Palestine, in part to confirm “that the Holy See continues to recognize only the State of Palestine and its authorities as the representatives of the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people.”
To some extent, tensions between Israel and the Christian leaders of the region are inevitable, given that the Christian population is largely Arab and Palestinian, and therefore tends to see Israeli policies in the same way as the broader Palestinian population.
It is also likely inevitable that as the war grinds on, the Vatican’s own stance will become increasingly aligned with the patriarchs and church leaders, and not only because Pizzaballa is part of the group and the Vatican’s most trusted figure on the ground – a trust reflected in the fact that Francis just made him a cardinal in his Sept. 30 consistory.
Speaking on Thursday to Pro Terra Sancta social media platforms, Pizzaballa said that Christians in Gaza are suffering the same consequences of the war as other residents.
“Many Christian homes were destroyed [by Israeli bombs], not as a primary target, but still as so-called collateral damage,” he said.
More deeply, the Vatican simply isn’t the United States, where support for Israel is a bipartisan cornerstone of American foreign policy. Historically, the Vatican always has supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and, as one of the world’s smallest states itself, it has always felt a natural sympathy for the Palestinians.
Moreover, the outlook of Vatican diplomats tends to reflect that of their European counterparts, especially Italy, on many foreign policy questions, and public opinion in Italy never has been uniformly pro-Israel. While one recent poll shows that 63 percent of Italians sympathize with Israel after the Hamas attacks, only 25 percent support an invasion of Gaza, and on Saturday pro-Palestinian rallies were staged in several Italian cities, including Milan, Turin, Florence and Bari.
As time wears on, those attitudes likely will weigh on Vatican officials, especially since it’s what they’ll see and hear on their way to and from work.
All this has been amplified under Pope Francis, history’s first pope from the developing world. On his watch the Vatican increasingly is reluctant to be identified with the Western powers, positioning itself more as a non-aligned party with diplomatic interests more akin to the BRICS nations than with NATO or Washington and Brussels.
As Israel shows no signs of relaxing its siege of Gaza and reportedly is preparing for significant ground operations, it’s unlikely the Vatican will be reflexively supportive. In what may be an anticipation of complaints to come, Schutz posted a quotation from Martin Luther King Jr. to his X account late on Saturday: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
The current row between Israel and church leaders in the Holy Land, therefore, may well be a preview of tensions to come with the Vatican itself.
Israeli-Vatican relations were not exactly untroubled even before the war began, with an economic and tax agreement still unconsummated three decades after the two sides signed a Fundamental Agreement, and an increasingly hostile climate in Jerusalem for Christians fueled by the growing antagonism of ultra-Orthodox groups, including numerous incidents of spitting directed at Christian faithful and clergy.
Where the relationship will be when the dust settles after the carnage is Gaza is over is anyone’s guess … but the prospect that it, too, may be a casualty of war doesn’t seem completely remote.