DENVER – A group of Italian Rabbis and other prominent Jewish leaders have struck back against Pope Francis’s referral Wednesday to the ongoing war in Gaza as “terrorism,” asserting that he’s falsely equating the aggressors with the victims, while the pope’s aides insist he’s not “overlooking” the Hamas attack that launched the conflict.

In a statement following the pope’s latest remarks Wednesday, Noemi Di Segni, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, said, “The pope puts everyone on the same level of departure and arrival. But the departure is the terror that carries out the plan of extermination of Jews throughout the whole world.”

The war in Gaza, she said, “is necessary for the defense of Israel and its population. It involves suffering but the victims must be associated with those who are truly responsible.”

Similarly, a statement from the Council of the Assembly of Rabbis in Italy said the pope’s remarks put “innocent people torn from their families on the same level as people detained often for very serious acts of terrorism.”

“Immediately afterwards the pope publicly accused both sides of terrorism,” they said, saying, “These positions taken at the highest level follow problematic statements by illustrious exponents of the Church in which either there is no trace of condemnation of Hamas’s aggression, or, in the name of supposed impartiality, they place the aggressor and the aggrieved on the same level.”

Pope Francis Wednesday held meetings with both a delegation of 12 relatives of Israeli hostages taken by Hamas during their Oct. 7 surprise offensive on Israel, during which 1,400 were killed and 240 abducted, and 10 relatives of Palestinian prisoners in Israel.

In his remarks during his general audience that day, Francis referred to his meetings with both delegations, saying people on both sides “suffer a lot, and I heard how both of them suffer: Wars do this, but here we have gone beyond wars, this is not waging war, this is terrorism.”

The Council of the Assembly of Rabbis in Italy in their statement noted that the pope’s meeting with the family members of hostages was “requested for some time and always postponed,” as an attempt had been made to arrange the meeting during the October Synod of Bishops on Synodality, but organizers were told that the pope was too busy with synod affairs.

Wednesday’s meeting, the Council said, finally took place “because it was followed by a meeting with relatives of Palestinian prisoners in Israel,” which they said equates terrorism with its victims.

“We ask ourselves what purpose decades of Christian-Jewish dialogue have served by talking about friendship and brotherhood if then, in reality, when there are those who try to exterminate the Jews, instead of receiving expressions of closeness and understanding the response is that of diplomatic acrobatics, balancing acts and icy equidistance, which is certainly distance but is not fair,” they said.

Family members of hostages who met the pope Wednesday also reportedly voiced their disappointment with the pontiff’s words, with one apparently saying, “There can be no equivalence between Hamas, which is a terrorist organization and uses civilians as shields, and Israel, who defends civilians.”

Another family member of a hostage also reportedly voiced disappointment that Francis “did not name Hamas and he did not speak of it as a terrorist organization. He only said that the war must end.”

However, despite the blowback Pope Francis has received, several top aides have come to his defense, saying the Vatican has had a longstanding policy of neutrality, and that the pope’s concern is the long-term impact of an enduring conflict.

Speaking to Italian media, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna and president of the Italian bishops conference (CEI), said Pope Francis’s reference to terrorism Wednesday “does not put everyone on the same level.”

“Oct. 7 was a tragedy, period. It was a tragedy. And therefore, the attention, the condemnation. Then there is what is happening in Gaza,” he said, saying Francis is set on a ceasefire because “there is terrible suffering.”

“Looking ahead it seems to me he is pushing for another solution so that terrorism is truly fought, removing everything that in some ways can paradoxically justify it,” Zuppi said, adding, “This is the pope’s position and it’s not that he doesn’t understand the Israeli government’s motivations.”

Likewise, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, took a similar line in remarks to journalists on the margins of a Mass commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor, also known as the “Great Ukrainian Famine,” in which millions of Ukrainians starved to death as a result of orders from the Soviet Union between 1932-1933.

In his remarks, Parolin said accusations that the pope is putting everyone on the same level in the Gaza war “make no sense,” and that recent events “certainly” don’t put dialogue with the Jewish community and “the achievements of these years” at risk.

Rather, he said “we are deeply concerned about this wave of anti-Semitism which is breaking out everywhere” in the wake of the war’s eruption.

Referring to Hamas’s Oct. 7 surprise attack, Parolin said “there has been a clear stance” from the Holy See on the offensive, and that “it’s not that we have overlooked it.”

“To me it seems that the Holy See tries in every way to be fair, to take into account the suffering of everyone. Also, in this case for the terrible things that Israel suffered which is to be condemned,” he said.

However, at the same time, Parolin insisted that “we also cannot ignore what is happening on the other side…where there have been many deaths, many wounded, and so much destruction.”

“The pope wants to be close to the suffering of all those who are who suffer,” he said, saying this is the reason the pope wanted to meet with both sides of the conflict.

Questioned about similarities in the criticism of Pope Francis’s stance on the Gaza war and critiques of his handling of the Russia-Ukraine war in terms of a perceived refusal to distinguish between the aggressors and the aggrieved, Parolin said responses have been given and that “in the case of Ukraine, we have said ‘it is a war of aggression.’”

“What more can we say than that?” he said, saying, “The words must be read carefully to understand what they intend to say. Then if one wants more, we also have our position, we make our considerations, we make our decision.”

Parolin insisted that there is no equivalence of the aggressor and the victims, and that “What there is to say, we have said, even if in forms that befit the Holy See … what the pope says, he says clearly. Of course, not the way they want.”

He noted that criticisms of the Holy See’s stance of neutrality are nothing new, and that Pope Benedict XV faced similar pushback during the First World War.

“I am sorry, but I am not surprised. It is the destiny of knowing how to tell each one what must be said, but I return to saying it in the ways in which the Holy See does it,” he said.

Parolin said the main focus at the moment is the release of the hostages abducted by Hamas, and that at the moment, “there are not many other possibilities” for Vatican intervention.

Francis’s decision to meet with family members of the hostages at the Vatican, he said, “can help in this sense to resolve the problem.”

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