Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See Raphael Schutz. (Credit: Israeli Embassy to the Holy See.)

ROME – Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican has voiced appreciation for Pope Francis’s recent remarks regarding the catastrophic surprise attack by Hamas, saying the pontiff’s call for the release of hostages and his insistence on the right to self-defense filled a “vacuum”.

Raphael Schutz, who has served as Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See since 2021, told Crux that the pope’s statement “in a way fills a vacuum I felt needed to be filled in recent days, especially recognizing the right of Israel to self-defense.”

“This is the most important element in what he said. Of course, calling for the release of the hostages is also very important,” Schutz said.

So far, Israeli authorities report that 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the onslaught, marking the worst in the country’s history, while in Gaza more than 1,100 people have reportedly been killed as a result of Israel’s retaliatory air and artillery strikes.

Pope Francis in his Oct. 8 Sunday Angelus address made an appeal for both sides of the conflict to “stop the attacks and weapons,” insisting that “every war is a defeat.”

Three days later, during a general audience address, Pope Francis added that he’s praying for families of victims of the attack and asked that all hostages be released. Francis also insisted that “it is the right of those who were attacked to defend themselves,” but he voiced concern over “the total siege Palestinians in Gaza face, where many have also been innocent victims.”

He urged restraint, saying, “Terrorism and extremism do not help to reach a solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but fuel hatred, violence, and revenge, causing suffering to both sides.”

Before those remarks, the Israeli Embassy to the Holy See in separate statements had condemned what it said were “linguistic ambiguities” and “parallelisms” that equate the aggressor with the aggrieved on the part of church leaders, and voiced disappointment in the “sterile” tone taken by faith representatives.

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In his interview with Crux, Schutz said he appreciated Pope Francis’s Wednesday appeal, and that while no war is desirable, “there are wars that are just and need to be waged.”

“Sometimes when you face an ultimate evil, like President Biden said last night, you cannot speak about ‘de-escalation,’” he said, referring to remarks given by United States President Joe Biden.

“Nobody spoke about de-escalation in Europe in 1945, nobody spoke about de-escalation after Sept. 11, nobody spoke about de-escalation with ISIS, and nobody can speak about de-escalation with Hamas. Hamas is ISIS, the equation is that simple,” he said.

Schutz called Biden’s speech “historical” and said that for the first time since Saturday’s attack, it gave Israel “a gleam of light in the darkness, a sense of confidence, a sense that we are not alone. He didn’t just look shocked, he was shocked. We appreciated it.”

In terms of numbers, Schutz said that given population differences, the 1,200 Israeli victims would equate to 40,000 dead in the United States, giving Saturday’s Hamas offensive “biblical dimensions.”

Calling Hamas “a bitter enemy” and “barbarians,” Schutz said the current conflict has nothing to do with territorial disputes between Israel and Palestine.

However, he also said the Israelis have not yet heard “a clear condemnation” from Palestinian authorities, and that given the political influence Hamas holds, Palestinians themselves “have to decide whether they adhere to this barbarism or if it’s not part of them.”

In terms of being prepared for such an offensive, Schutz said “this was huge intelligence failure on our side.”

“We should have known in advance. We always believed in our intelligence capacities, and the frustration is enormous. It’s really beyond words,” he said, saying an investigation will eventually be done, but “the war comes first.”

Noting that there have been exchanges of fire with both Lebanon and Syria since Saturday’s attack, Schutz said a potential escalation into a full-blown regional conflict is “a very clear and present danger that we all recognize and are concerned with.”

“Nevertheless, it won’t deter us from protecting ourselves the way we think we should, on all fronts,” he said.

In terms of what strategy Israel has for securing the return of hostages taken during Saturday’s offensive, Schutz said he is unaware of any “game plan,” but “I hope there is one, we must have one. This cannot wait. Everybody is in a state of shock.”

Schutz voice appreciation for Pope Francis’s decision to condemn Hamas’s attack as an act of terrorism and said the pope’s words were “sufficient” in the eyes of his government.

“When something happens, especially in the Israeli-Palestinian context, there is a tendency to say ‘yes, but,’ and we wanted to eliminate the ‘but,’” he said.

“We wanted to eliminate the parallelisms, the linguistic ambiguities, because when you have all these elements included, practically you don’t say anything,” he said.

Schutz said the main thing he is hoping for from ecclesial authorities is a recognition of Israel’s right to self-defense, and that while he is content with the pope’s statement, he believes church leaders should identify the perpetrators “by name.”

“I think they should do it, I think the Church should do it. But I’m very aware of the special language the Church uses, that it’s used in the past and it uses in the present,” he said.

Asked about the Vatican’s traditional stance of diplomatic neutrality and the pope’s attempts to strike balance in the Ukraine-Russia war, Schutz asked what neutrality means, saying, “Can you be neutral between good and bad?”

“I leave the question here. Of course, I would never criticize the pope, but the moral question is on the table,” he said.

Schutz said he is in contact with Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and one of Pope Francis’s new crop of cardinals, and that he not only appreciates Pizzaballa, but he attended the Sept. 30 consistory in which Pizzaballa received his red hat.

“I have nothing but high appreciation for him. His position is not easy. He has a Catholic community in Israel, in the Palestinian Territories, in other places too, and everybody is Catholic but they’re not necessarily of the same opinion. He’s a good man,” Schutz said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen