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Gerard O’ConnellOctober 18, 2023
Pope Francis begins his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct. 18, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Pope Francis today called for the silencing of guns and the avoidance of “a humanitarian catastrophe” in Gaza. He also declared Oct. 27 as World Day of Prayer for peace, which he invited all Christians and people of any faith to join.

He made his appeal for a stop to the war when he greeted thousands of pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square at the general audience on Oct. 18. His call came in the wake of the explosion at the Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City the previous evening. The Hamas militant group blamed the blast on an Israeli airstrike, while the Israeli military blamed a rocket misfired by other Palestinian militants. Upon arriving in Israel on an mission to keep the Israel-Hamas war from spiraling into a broader regional conflict, President Joe Biden told Israeli leaders: “Based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you” but that there were “a lot of people out there” who were not sure.

During the general audience, Pope Francis said, “Dear brothers and sisters, my thoughts go to Palestine and Israel,” a remark that drew long applause from the crowd. “The victims increase, and the situation in Gaza is desperate,” he said. According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, some 3,200 Palestinians, including around 1,030 children, have been killed and 12,500 injured in Gaza by the constant Israeli bombing over the past 12 days. The strikes come in retaliation for the more than 1,400 Israelis, mostly civilians, killed in the attack by Hamas in southern Israel on Oct. 7. Many more were injured, and nearly 200 Israelis, including women and children, were taken hostage by Hamas and are still being held in Gaza.

“The situation in Gaza is desperate,” the pope said. Gaza, a 141-square-mile enclave with a population of 2.3 million people, has been under total siege since Oct. 7, and Israel is preventing electricity, gas, food, water and medical supplies from entering the area. “Please do everything possible to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe,” he said.

“The possible expansion of the conflict is disturbing, while in the world many war fronts are already open,” Pope Francis said. There is deep concern at the Vatican and in many countries that the continuation of the war declared by Israel on Hamas could also lead to the involvement of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria and even Iran.

“Let the guns be silenced!,” Pope Francis appealed yet again, as President Biden was about to land in Israel. The United States has been the biggest backer of Israel since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and is seen as the only country that could pressure Israel to exercise restraint in this new war. “Listen to the cry of the poor, of the people, of the children,” the pope appealed.

Pope Francis told the crowd: “Brothers and sisters, war does not resolve any problem. It only sows death and destruction. It increases hate, multiplies the vendetta. War cancels the future. It cancels the future!”

Aware that each side in this fierce conflict is seeking to draw people worldwide to support their narrative and side, Francis said: “I exhort believers to take only one side in this conflict, that of peace. But not with words but with prayer, with total dedication.”

In this context, he said, “I have decided to declare Friday, Oct. 27, as a day of fasting, prayer and penance, to which I invite join—in the way that is considered opportune—the brothers and sisters of the different Christian confessions, and the adherents of other religions who have in their hearts the cause of peace in the world.”

He announced that at 8 p.m. (Rome time) on the evening of Oct. 27 there will be held in St. Peter’s Basilica, “in a spirit of penitence, an hour of prayer to implore for peace in our days, peace in this world.” He called on all Catholic churches in different countries to participate in this prayer event by “organizing similar initiatives that will involve the people of God.”

He concluded by inviting everyone, “Let us pray for peace and let us not forget the martyred Ukraine about which there is no longer talk, but the drama continues.”

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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