YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – After the Chief Rabbi of South Africa posted a social media video accusing Pope Francis of “colluding with the forces of evil” for his stance on the war between Israel and Hamas, the country’s bishops have pushed back, insisting the claims “lack truth and objectivity and have an air of mistrust and character assassination.”

The bishops also asserted that while both the Holocaust and the surprise Hamas attacks on Israel of Oct. 7 were “barbaric” and must be prevented from happening again, “these events should not be used to silence and paralyze friends from being critical of the Israeli Army’s inhumane and unlawful acts in this present war.”

Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein posted the video on YouTube Dec. 19, responding to a late November report in the Washington Post regarding a phone conversation between Pope Francis and Israeli President Isaac Herzog in which the pontiff allegedly said “it is forbidden to respond to terror with terror.”

Goldstein said the pope’s remarks meant he was placing Israel on the same level as Hamas.

“In comparing Israel’s just war of self-defense to the barbarism of Hamas, Pope Francis repeats the sins of Pope Pius XII from the Nazi era of surreptitiously supporting the forces of evil who seek to annihilate the Jewish people and betrays his fiduciary duty as the head of the Catholic Church to protect Christians throughout the world from the same murderous hatred directed against the Jews, not realizing that we are in this war together,” Goldstein said in the video.

He accused the pope of what he described as “primitive pacifism,” and suggested that the pontiff’s position could actually lead to more suffering.

“Pope Francis, God has given you an historic opportunity to atone for the sins of Pope Pius and the Catholic Church during the Holocaust,” Goldstein said. “Your church and predecessor stood by while the first Holocaust was perpetrated, and now there are forces that seek a second holocaust.”

“Yet you have never used your powerful moral voice to condemn Iran for all of this,” Goldstein said. “You have never publicly opposed Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, which we all know it intends to use to exterminate Israel. Pope Francis… you must not stand by as a passive bystander like Pope Pius did during the first holocaust, while Iran seeks to perpetrate a second one and one of the ways that Iran seeks to exterminate Israel is through its proxy army, Hamas.”

As of this writing, the video had drawn 116,000 views. In response, the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops Conference

In response, the Southern African Catholic Bishops published a Dec. 23 open letter signed by Bishop Sithembele Anton Sipuka of Umtata, South Africa, president of the conference, in which the bishops emphasized both the long-standing relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, and Pope Francis’s own personal commitment to dialogue and cooperation.

“Given the renewed religious dialogue with the Jewish people and the diplomatic relationship that exists between the Catholic Church and the State of Israel, your public attack on the pope is regrettable,” the bishops’ statement said.

“The emotions with which you uttered these statements suggest that you believe that the Pope hates Jews, hence you call him to repent, [but] nothing could be further from the truth. Pope Francis began his papacy by visiting Israel in 2014. During that journey, he expressed joy about Catholics and Jews being ‘bound by a very special spiritual bond,’ pledging to work to advance ‘the progress there has been in relations between Jews and Catholics since the Second Vatican Council in a spirit of renewed collaboration,’” they said.

The SACBC defended the Pope’s stance on the war in Gaza, saying that he was not condoning terrorism but condemning the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by Israel, which, they said, has resulted in thousands of civilian casualties, mostly women and children.

The SACBC said that the Pope was not anti-Israel, but pro-peace and pro-justice, and that he had shown his solidarity and compassion for the victims of violence on both sides.

“When the atrocious attack, murder and abduction of innocent Israeli citizens by Hamas occurred on the 7th of October, Pope Francis clearly and unambiguously condemned it. He personally received some members of families of abducted Israelis by Hamas.”

“Pope Francis is not anti-Semite, and neither is the Catholic Church anti-Semitic. He is a friend to the Jewish people and Israel,” the bishops said.

The SACBC challenged Goldstein’s assertion that the Israeli Army has done more to minimize civilian casualties than any army in history, citing the reports of shelling schools, hospitals, refugee camps, homes, mosques and churches in Gaza, and blocking humanitarian aid. The SACBC said that these actions could not be justified by the criteria of a just war, and that Israel had no moral right to engage in such conduct.

The SACBC also lamented the recent attack on a Catholic church and a convent in Gaza, where two women were killed by an Israeli Army sniper, and several others were injured by mortar fire. The SACBC said that this attack was an example of the brutality and injustice that the pope was denouncing, and that it contradicted Goldstein’s portrayal of Israel as largely innocent.

The SACBC concluded its letter by criticizing Goldstein’s description of the pope’s desire to see a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine as a “betrayal” of the Jewish people.

The SACBC said that the pope’s desire was in line with the international consensus and the legitimate aspirations of both peoples, and that it was not a threat to the existence or security of Israel, but a guarantee of peace and stability in the region.

The bishops also offered to meet Goldstein personally to further the discussion.