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Gerard O’ConnellOctober 11, 2023
Pope Francis places his hand on his face during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct. 11, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Pope Francis today called for “the immediate release” of the more than 100 Israeli hostages taken by Hamas into Gaza and, at the same time, expressed his deep concern at the “total siege” imposed by Israel on Gaza, where 2.3 million people, living under constant Israeli aerial bombardment, are now deprived of electricity, food, water and medical supplies.

Speaking slowly and with a pained expression on his face, the pope addressed the situation in Israel and Palestine at today’s general audience, attended by thousands of pilgrims from all continents in St. Peter’s Square.

“I am following with pain and apprehension what is happening in Israel and Palestine,” he told them, echoing words he had also said on Sunday.

“So many persons killed and injured,” he said referring to the enormous casualties on both sides.

More than 1,200 Israelis have been killed, including 40 children, according to an official from the Israel Defense Forces, and some 2,700 injured in the terrorist attacks by Hamas on Oct. 7. Since then, 1,055 Palestinians have been killed, including 260 children, and over 5,000 injured, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, by more than 2,000 Israeli airstrikes on the crowded Gaza City. The strikes have also hit mosques, a refugee camp and residential blocks and destroyed the telecommunications center. According to the I.D.F., the bodies of 1,500 Hamas militants have also been found in southern Israel.

“I pray for those families who have seen a day of festival being transformed into a day of mourning,” he said referring to the families who lost loved ones in the attack on an all-night rave in southern Israel, near the border with Gaza, held on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah. While most of the victims were Israeli, people from many countries attended the festival. According to White House officials, 14 American citizens were killed in the attack. Also among the victims were seven people from the pope’s native Argentina.

“I ask that the hostages be released immediately,” Pope Francis said. More than 100 hostages, mostly from Israel, including men, women, children, elderly civilians, as well as Israeli soldiers, have been taken captive by Hamas in Gaza. Hamas has threatened to execute a hostage for every airstrike carried out without warning by Israel on residential buildings in Gaza.

“Israel has a right to defend itself,” the pope stated clearly, restating Catholic social teaching and international law on the right of a country to defend itself.

At the same time, Francis said, “I am very worried at the total siege under which the Palestinians are living in Gaza, where also there have been many innocent victims.” He was referring to the total blockade imposed by Israel on the 141-square-mile Gaza enclave. The siege prevents the supply of electricity and the entry of food, water, medical supplies and other goods into Gaza. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, has said the blockade violates international law. Israel has also bombed the Rafah entry point between Egypt and Gaza, blocking the only land exit out of Gaza.

“Terrorism and extremisms do not help to reach a solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians,” the pope said. “[They] only fuel hate, violence, vendetta and cause suffering to the one side and the other.”

“The Middle East does not need wars but peace, a peace built on justice, on dialogue, on the courage of fraternity,” Pope Francis said. His words gave voice to the real concern in the Vatican and elsewhere that this war could escalate, as Israel appears to be preparing for a massive ground invasion of Gaza in reprisal for the Hamas attack that has traumatized the country. The Vatican is also concerned that such an attack could trigger a Palestinian uprising within the West Bank and the state of Israel, and might also provoke Hezbollah in Lebanon to enter the conflict in solidarity with the Palestinians.

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