Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, entered Gaza on Thursday and reached the parish of the Holy Family for a pastoral visit.

Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, attacked Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, killing 1,200 Israelis and taking over 200 more as hostages.

Since that time, Israel has launched a war against Gaza, where the health minister says over 35,000 Palestinians have been killed.

The Church of the Holy Family is the only Catholic parish in Gaza, and its compound has housed around 600 displaced Christians since the conflict began.

In a video message released by the patriarchate, Pizzaballa said: “It has been a long time since I first had the desire to come see them, to meet them. Finally, I have this opportunity and I am very happy about it.”

RELATED: Gaza priest says local Christians ‘living a Calvary without respite’

He explained that the objective of the visit is, “above all, to be with them, to hug and support them, to verify their conditions, to try to understand what can be done to improve their situation and to help them in every way possible.”

Pizzaballa then called on all Christians to join “the Christian community of Gaza in prayer.”

The patriarch travelled with Fra’ Alessandro de Franciscis, Grand Hospitaller of the Sovereign Order of Malta and Father Gabriele Romanelli, the parish priest of Gaza, who had been unable to visit his parish for months.

Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, at the Church of the Holy Family in Gaza, May 16, 2024. (Credit: Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.)
Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, at the Church of the Holy Family in Gaza, May 16, 2024. (Credit: Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.)

The cardinal presided at Mass in the parish church with the local community. During his stay, Pizzaballa paid a courtesy visit to the St. Porphyrius Orthodox parish.

The visit is also the first stage of a joint humanitarian mission of the Latin Patriarchate and the Sovereign Order of Malta, in collaboration with Malteser International and other partners, aiming at the delivery of life-saving food and medical help to the population in Gaza.

The Order of Malta said in a statement it has a rooted presence in the Holy Land.

“Founded in Jerusalem in the 11th century with a mission of care for pilgrims of any faith and origin, religion, ethnicity, gender or political belief,” the Order said in a statement.

“The motto ‘Tuitio Fidei, Obsequium Pauperum’ or ‘Witness of the faith and assistance to the poor’ has guided its work for over nine centuries,” the statement continued.

“The Order of Malta continues to serve the Holy Land and operates a maternity hospital in Bethlehem where over 4,500 babies are born each year. It is the only hospital in the region equipped with an intensive neonatology ward capable of treating premature babies or those born with serious genetic disorders,” the statement continued.

“The hospital has seen over 100,000 babies born since 1990, some born at less than 32 weeks’ gestation. The Holy Family Hospital serves a catchment area of one million people and is an important reference hospital for women and children’s health in the region. The staff consists of Christian and Muslim doctors and nurses,” the Order said.

Speaking to CBS News on April 24 – in an interview which will air in its entirety on May 20 – Pope Francis said he calls parishioners in Gaza every day to hear what they are experiencing.

“They tell me what’s going on,” Francis said. “It’s very hard. Very, very hard. And food goes in, but they have to fight for it.”

RELATED: Pope calls for negotiated peace in CBS interview

Meanwhile, South Africa’s ambassador to the Netherlands, Vusimuzi Madonsela, on Thursday requested the International Court of Justice (ICJ) order Israel to “immediately, totally and unconditionally, withdraw the Israeli army from the entirety of the Gaza Strip.”

On Friday, Israel called the request by South Africa “completely divorced from facts and circumstances.”

Israeli justice ministry official Gilad Noam said there is a “tragic war going on but no genocide.”

“This war, like all wars, is tragic. For Israelis and Palestinians and it has exacted a terrible human price but it is not genocide,” he said.

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