ROME –Pope Francis spoke by phone with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on Sunday about the situation in Gaza, marking the latest such call with international leaders focused on ensuring access to humanitarian aid and pursuing ceasefire efforts.
The call, confirmed by Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni on Vatican News, the Vatican’s formal state-run media platform, took place at Raisi’s request. Bruni did not provide any details about the conversation.
According to the website of the Iranian presidency, Raisi condemned Israel’s retaliation over an Oct. 7 Hamas surprise attack that left 1,400 Israelis dead and several others taken hostage, saying the strikes on Gaza have been disproportionate, leaving around 10,000 people dead, including 4,000 children and 2,500 women, according to Palestinian estimates.
Referring to the Israeli strikes as “terrible and unprecedented crimes of the Zionist usurper regime” amounting to “the biggest genocide of the century,” Raisi asked for condemnation.
He cited strikes on civilian targets such the al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir el-Balah, the 12th century Saint Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church and the Jabalia refugee camp, saying these strikes amount to “crimes against humanity” and are “examples of apartheid practices not only against Palestinian Muslims but also against other divine religions, which is carried out with the support of American and several European countries.”
Raisi, according to the statement from the president’s office, said it is the duty of Abrahamic religions, including Christians, to support “the oppressed people of Palestine,” and he voiced appreciation for Pope Francis’s repeated calls for a ceasefire in Gaza.
He also asked the pope to evaluate the position of western countries supportive of Israel’s military activities and to “play a role in explaining the position of the oppressor and the oppressed in this story.”
During the call, Raisi reiterated Iran’s position in support of Gaza and also voiced appreciation for the 70th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Iran and the Holy See, describing relations as currently “very good.”
Raisi made a point of stating that Christians enjoy religious freedom in Iran and are treated as full citizens, the statement said, asserting that Christians from neighboring countries also see Iran as a refuge and that “we defend not only the rights of Muslim nations but also the rights of Christians.
According to the statement, Pope Francis for his part voiced appreciation for Raisi’s support of those suffering in Gaza and stressed the need for a ceasefire, pledging that, “As the leader of the world’s Catholics I will do everything in my power to stop these attacks and prevent more women and children from becoming victims in Gaza.”
Earlier on Sunday, Pope Francis reiterated his appeal for peace in Gaza during his weekly Angelus address, noting that countless lives continue to be lost.
“In God’s name, I beg you to stop: stop using weapons! I hope that avenues will be pursued so that an escalation of the conflict might be absolutely avoided, the wounded can be rescued, and help might get to the population of Gaza where the humanitarian situation is extremely serious,” he said.
Francis also asked that hostages taken by Hamas militants be “freed immediately,” noting that among them are many children.
He asked that the children be returned to their families, saying, “let’s think of the children, of all the children affected by this war, as well as in Ukraine and by other conflicts: this is how their future is being killed. Let us pray that there might be the strength to say, ‘enough.’”
Facing increased international pressure, including from the United Nations, over the rising number of civilian deaths in Gaza, Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See Raphael Schutz in a series of Nov. 2 posts on social media platform X, previously called Twitter, responded to a video of Catholics sheltering in Gaza’s Holy Family parish as bombs fell nearby.
“My sincere and heartfelt hope these and other innocent people won’t be hurt. War is a terrible thing. It was imposed on us by Hamas and we must fight and win it to secure our existence,” he said, saying that Israel, unlike Hamas, respects international law and is making “every effort to aim at military targets only.”
“Please understand that for Hamas, killed Palestinian civilians, destroyed churches, burnt hospitals etc. are an asset. They operate from the vicinity of those not only in order to use them as shields but also because they know the public opinion will criticize Israel,” he said.
Sunday’s call was the latest in a series of calls Pope Francis has held with international leaders in an attempt to mediate the situation in Gaza and push for a ceasefire, following an Oct. 22 phone call with United States President Joe Biden; and Oct. 26 phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; and a Nov. 2 call with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
On Oct. 30, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States British Archbishop Paul Gallagher spoke with Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, also at Iran’s request.
According to Bruni, Gallagher during that call expressed “the serious concern of the Holy See for what is happening in Israel and Palestine” and stressed “the absolute need to avoid broadening the conflict and to reach a two-state solution for a peace stable and lasting in the Middle East.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen