ROME – Pope Francis issued another public appeal for peace in the Holy Land and throughout the world on Sunday, and made a phone call to United States President Joe Biden to discuss options for ensuring access to humanitarian aid and the release of hostages.
Patriarchs and Church leaders in the Holy Land also issued a statement condemning the targeting of civilian infrastructure and calling for a ceasefire.
In an Oct. 22 statement, the Vatican announced that earlier that afternoon, “A phone call took place between Pope Francis and the President of the United States, Joe Biden,” with the roughly 20-minute conversation “focused on situations of conflict in the world and the need to identify pathways of peace.”
A statement from the White House said the conversation focused on the latest developments in Israel and Gaza, with Biden condemning “the barbarous attack” by Hamas and insisting on the need to protect civilians in Gaza.
Biden discussed his recent visit to Israel and his efforts to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza, the statement said. Both parties discussed the need to prevent a regional escalation of the conflict and to “work toward a durable peace in the Middle East.”
Also on Sunday, Biden spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the developments in Gaza and the surrounding region.
According to a White House statement, Biden thanked Netanyahu for allowing two convoys of humanitarian assistance to enter Gaza and the two agreed that there will be a “continued flow” of critical assistance.
Other points of discussion included Israel’s efforts to help free two Americans taken hostage by Hamas, as well as efforts to secure the release of the remaining hostages, including other U.S. citizens, and to secure safe passage for Americans and other civilians who wish to leave Gaza.
Pope Francis in his Sunday Angelus address again appealed for peace in Israel and Palestine, saying is “pained” by recent developments and is “praying and am close to those who are suffering, to the hostages, the wounded, the victims and their families.”
He lamented the “serious humanitarian situation in Gaza” and voiced sadness at the bombing of an Anglican hospital and a Greek Orthodox parish in Gaza this past week.
“I renew my appeal for spaces to be opened up, for humanitarian aid to continue to arrive, and for the hostages be freed,” he said, saying, “War, every war there is in the world – I think also of the martyred Ukraine – is a defeat.”
“War is always a defeat; it is the destruction of human fraternity. Brothers, stop! Stop!” he said, and reminded faithful that Friday, Oct. 27, has been designated as a day of prayer, fasting and penance for peace that will feature a holy hour in St. Peter’s Basilica at 6:00 p.m. local time.
For the past two weeks Gaza has been at the heart of a war between Israel and Palestinian terrorist group Hamas following a deadly surprise by Hamas militants Oct. 7 that left some 1,400 Israelis dead, including children. Hundreds were taken to Gaza as hostages.
Netanyahu immediately declared war and has since launched an air and ground offensive, calling on portions of Gaza to be evacuated as fighting escalates and concerns rise over the safety of civilians.
So far, Palestinian health officials report that 4,600 people have been killed in Gaza and more than a million left homeless since Israel’s retaliatory attacks began, and concerns are rising over the humanitarian situation as inhabitants face shortages of food, water, fuel, and medical supplies.
There has been increasing global outcry over the targeting of civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and religious sites.
On Tuesday, Oct. 17, a massive blast shook Gaza City’s Ahli Hospital, which had been packed with wounded and other civilians seeking shelter and which sits outside of northern Gaza’s evacuation zone, killing nearly 500 people, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
However, that number is disputed, as Israel claims the number was inflated, and US intelligence agencies have said the actual number of casualties is likely between 100 and 300 people. Both Israel and Hamas have exchanged blame for the incident.
Two days later, on Oct. 19, the 12th century Saint Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza City, which belongs to the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem and dates to the fifth century, making it one of the most historic in the region, was struck by an Israeli air strike.
In response to the incident, the Israeli military said part of the church was damaged during a targeted attack on a Hamas militant command center and that it was reviewing the incident.
The church had been sheltering between 500-1,000 Muslim and Christian civilians seeking refuge from Israel’s bombing campaign. Palestinian health officials report that at least 16 people have died as a result of the strike, but the church has yet to provide its own count.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, arrived in Jerusalem Oct. 19 on a pastoral visit following the bombing of the Anglican Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza.
In an Oct. 21 statement, the patriarchs and heads of churches in the Holy Land welcomed Welby and voiced condemnation of “the Israeli airstrikes that exploded without warning at the Orthodox Church compound of Saint Porphyrios in Gaza.”
“These blasts led to the sudden and catastrophic collapse of two church halls around the scores of refugees, including women and children, sleeping within. Dozens found themselves instantly crushed beneath the rubble. Many were injured — some severely,” they said, saying so far 18 people have died, half of whom are children.
International charity organization Caritas Internationalis issued a statement after the blast saying one of the aid workers for their Jerusalem branch, a 26-year-old named Viola, was killed in the strike along with her husband and their infant daughter.
“May they rest in peace,” Caritas said, saying Israel “has imposed a total siege on Gaza’s more than 2 million citizens,” leading to shortages of basic needs while “arbitrary shelling” has intensified.
“Gaza has already been under blockade for 16 years. Half its population are children and almost 2/3 are refugees,” they said, and condemned “in the strongest terms the arbitrary and deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure.”
They called for a ceasefire, the protection of civilians, and the “safe, unimpeded” access of humanitarian aid and for the upholding of international law.
In their statement, the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem condemned the attack on the Greek Orthodox church, saying, “We cannot ignore that this is but the latest instance of innocent civilians being injured or killed as a result of missile strikes against other shelters of last resort.”
Despite the damage done to their social, religious, and humanitarian structures, the church leaders said they remain “fully committed to fulfilling our sacred and moral duty of offering assistance, support and refuge to those civilians who come to us in such desperate need.”
“Even in the face of ceaseless military demands to evacuate our charitable institutions and houses of worship, we will not abandon this Christian mission, for there is literally no other save place for these innocents to turn,” they said.
Citing the Gospel’s charge to minister to the poor, needy and vulnerable, they said this is especially important in times of war, “when human suffering is at its greatest,” and called on the international community to enforce protections in Gaza for places of refuge, such as hospitals, schools, and places of worship.
They also called for a ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to be safely delivered, and they asked the warring parties “to de-escalate the violence, cease from indiscriminately targeting civilians on all sides, and operate within the international rules of warfare.”
“Only in this way, we believe, can the groundwork be laid for an eventual diplomatic consideration of longstanding grievances so that a just and lasting peace can finally be achieved throughout our beloved Holy Land – both in our time, and for generations to come,” they said.
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