ROME – A growing rift between the Vatican and Israel was exacerbated Wednesday, when the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See hit back against a top Vatican official who said the ongoing Israeli military offensive in Gaza is disproportionate.

On the margins of a Feb. 13 event commemorating the 95th anniversary of the Lateran Pacts, which regularized the relationship between the Holy See and the new Republic of Italy in 1929, Vatican Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told reporters that it’s time for Israel to change its strategy in Gaza.

Parolin said broad calls for Israel to stop the carnage have become “a general voice, that it can’t go on like this and other paths have to be found to resolve the problem of Gaza, the problem of Palestine.”

He repeated the Vatican’s “sharp and unqualified condemnation” of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel and of all forms of anti-Semitism but maintained his criticism of Israeli policy.

“Israel’s right of self-defense, which has been invoked to justify this operation, must be proportional, and with 30,000 dead it certainly isn’t,” he said, citing unconfirmed statistics provided by the Gaza Health Ministry.

In a statement the following day, Israel’s Embassy to the Holy See responded to Parolin’s remarks, calling it “a deplorable declaration.”

“To judge the legitimacy of a war without taking into account ALL of the circumstances and relevant data inevitably leads to mistaken conclusions,” they said, and ticked off several points they said must be considered.

Gaza, the embassy said, has been transformed by Hamas “into the largest terroristic base ever seen. There is almost no civil infrastructure that has not been used by Hamas for their criminal plans,” including hospitals, schools, and places of worship, among others.

Hamas’s objective of building an unprecedented terrorist operation has been “actively sustained by the local civilian population,” the statement said, saying civilians themselves actively participated in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, “killing, raping, and taking civilian hostages.”

“All of these acts are defined as war crimes,” the embassy said, insisting that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is conducting its own retaliatory military operation “in the full respect of international law.”

To this end, the embassy compared statistics from the current war in Gaza to those from previous, western-led regional conflicts.

Citing information available to them, the embassy said that in Gaza, three civilians have died for every one Hamas militant killed.

“All civilian victims are to be mourned, but in wars and in past operations by NATO forces or by western forces in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, the proportion was of 9 or 10 civilians for every terrorist. Thus, the percentage of the IDF’s attempt to avoid the death of civilians is around three times higher, regardless of the fact that the battleground in Gaza is much more complicated,” the embassy said.

Taking these points into consideration, the embassy said that “any objective observation cannot not arrive at the conclusion that the responsibility for the death and destruction in Gaza is from Hamas and Hamas alone.”

“This is forgotten too often and too easily,” they said, saying, it is not enough for the Vatican “to condemn the genocidal massacre of October 7 and then point the finger at Israel referring to their right to existence and self-defense only as a simple duty and not considering the bigger picture.”

The spat over Parolin’s remarks is the latest twist in a steady splintering of Catholic-Jewish relations since the Gaza war broke out, with a series of perceived missteps by Pope Francis and the Holy See angering the Jewish community.

Over the weekend, for example, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, 81, and former president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, inadvertently made waves by quoting an Italian rapper critical of Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Ravasi on Sunday had tuned into the finale of Sanremo, the country’s largest annual music festival, and had published a post on social media platform X, previously known as Twitter, containing lyrics from an Italian-born rapper of Tunisian origins named Ghali, who fourth place in the competition.

After concluding his performance, Ghali used the spotlight to issue a brief but explosive political statement, saying, “Stop the genocide,” in reference to the Israeli offensive in Gaza.

Ghali’s remarks sparked immediate backlash and, while not intending to make a political statement with post, Ravasi also came under fire for having given a public shout-out to the rapper.

Pope Francis has also consistently come under fire for his handling of the war in Gaza, most recently from a prominent liberal German theologian Gregor Maria Hoff, who penned a Feb. 9 essay in the prestigious journal Communio criticizing the pope’s actions.

Hoff specifically took issue with the pope’s Feb. 3 letter to the Jews of Israel, saying the pontiff failed to “call a spade a spade,” clearly distinguishing between Hamas terrorism and Israeli self-defense.

In his letter, Francis attempted to extend an olive branch to the Jewish community, condemning attitudes of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism that have arisen since the Gaza war broke out last year.

“The path that the Church has walked with you, the ancient people of the covenant, rejects every form of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, unequivocally condemning manifestations of hatred towards Jews and Judaism as a sin against God,” Francis said.

This letter was published after objections from many Jewish leaders to what they argue is the pope’s perplexing moral equivalence regarding the war in Gaza, lamenting violence on all sides but failing to identify Hamas as the aggressor and Israel as engaged in legitimate self-defense.

Many Jewish leaders were offended in November after a Palestinian delegation visited the Vatican and reported that Pope Francis had used the word “genocide” to describe Israel’s offensive, a claim a Vatican spokesman attempted to deny but without great success.

Hoff in his essay questioned the sincerity of Francis’s commitment to a “special relationship” with Judaism, saying that if it doesn’t mean “trustworthy loyalty in an emergency” then it is just empty rhetoric, and that what Jews really want to hear from the pope is simple: “Whoever attacks Jews, also attacks us!”

As it stands, the pope’s letter drew little reaction from the Jewish community, and likely left many unsatisfied. Parolin’s remarks and Israel’s immediate response have only added to what is becoming a festering crisis that is increasingly difficult for the pope and his aides to ignore.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen