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Gerard O’ConnellDecember 17, 2023
A man holds a sign wishing Pope Francis a happy 87th birthday as he joins the pope for the recitation of the Angelus prayer in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Dec. 17, 2023. (CNS photo/Pablo Esparza)

Pope Francis strongly denounced “the bombing and shooting of unarmed civilians” in Gaza, as he greeted the thousands of Romans and pilgrims Dec. 17 in St. Peter’s Square. He condemned, in particular, the killing of two women in the Holy Family parish in Gaza, and the attack on the convent of Mother Teresa’s nuns that care for disabled persons.

Hundreds of children with colorful banners were among the 22,000 Romans and pilgrims who came to the square today to wish Francis “Happy Birthday.” They gave a tremendous cheer when he appeared at the window. He smiled broadly, and looked in great form, as he acknowledged their greetings. He is 87 years old today and is now the third oldest pope in the history of the church. (Leo XIII died at the age of 93, while Clement XII died two months before his 88th birthday.)

Speaking from the papal study window on the third floor of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, Pope Francis focused his message on the war by calling on those present in the square and a global audience of millions of faithful who follow his Sunday audience on television, radio and by the different means of social communication to pray for all those suffering from war. “Let us pray for our brothers and sisters who are suffering from the war in Ukraine, in Palestine, in Israel and in the other zones of conflict,” he said. “May the drawing close of Christmas reinforce the commitment to open the paths to peace.”

“I continue to receive from Gaza very serious and painful news. Unarmed civilians are the targets of bombing and shooting,” he told them. According to the latest figures from the Gaza Ministry for Health, 7,729 children and 5,153 women are among the 18,787 Palestinians killed by bombings and shootings by the Israeli forces in Gaza since Oct. 7. Israeli forces are retaliating for the Hamas attack on that day that killed around 1,200 Israelis and took 240 hostages, some of whom have since been released.

He said the bombing and shooting of “unarmed civilians” has also “taken place even within the parochial complex of the Holy Family where there are not terrorists but families, children, sick persons, persons with disabilities, nuns.” His words forcefully challenged the repeated affirmations by the spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces that they are only shooting at “terrorists.”

He also said, “Nahida Khalil Anton and her daughter Samar Kamal Anton were killed, and other persons were injured, by [Israeli] snipers as they went to the toilet.” Though Francis did not say so, Al Jazeera reports that it was the “only” toilet there.

Moreover, he said, “The house of the sisters of Mother Teresa was damaged, their generator was hit.” According to a message from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the sisters care for 54 disabled persons.

“Someone said ‘it’s terrorism, it’s the war,’” the pope remarked. He made clear he agreed: “Yes, it is the war. It is terrorism!”

He said it is “for this reason that Scripture affirms: ‘God stops wars… breaks the bow, splinters the spear.’” (Psalm 46:9). Francis concluded by inviting everyone to pray “to the Lord for peace.”

Vatican sources told America that Pope Francis received information yesterday, Dec.16, from Cardinal Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, about the tragic killing and bombing of the Catholic community in Gaza. There are about 1,000 Christians, including 135 Catholics, in Gaza where almost all the population in Muslim.

At the end of today’s midday encounter with the faithful, Pope Francis extended a special greeting to hundreds of Roman school children gathered in the square. They had come, following a long tradition, bringing with them little statues of the Infant Jesus for the pope to bless. On returning home, the children place the small statues in the crib.

Greeting the children, many of whom also carried balloons wishing him “Happy Birthday,” he told them, “I bless them [the statues]. And in blessing the little infant statues, I ask you to pray before the crib for the children who will have a very difficult Christmas in places of war, in refugee camps, in situations of great misery. Thank you for doing this! Happy Christmas to you all and to your families! And please do not forget to pray for me!”

Dec. 16 Statement from Patriarchate of Jerusalem

Around noon today, December 2023, 16 a sniper of the IDF murdered two Christian women inside the Holy Family Parish in Gaza, where the majority of Christian families has taken refuge since the start of the war. Nahida and her daughter Samar were shot and killed as they walked to the Sister’s Convent. One was killed as she tried to carry the other to safety. Seven more people were shot and wounded as they tried to protect others inside the church compound. No warning was given, no notification was provided. They were shot in cold blood inside the premises of the Parish, where there are no belligerents.

Earlier in the morning, a rocket fired from an IDF tank targeted the Convent of the Sisters of Mother Theresa (Missionaries of Charity). The Convent is home to over 54 disabled persons and is part of the church compound, which was signaled as a place of worship since the beginning of the war. The building’s generator (the only source of electricity) and the fuel resources were destroyed. The house was damaged by the resulting explosion and massive fire. Two more

rockets, fired by an IDF tank, targeted the same Convent and rendered the home uninhabitable. The 54 disabled persons are currently displaced and without access to the respirators that some of them need to survive.

In addition, as a result of the heavy bombing in the area, three people were wounded inside the church compound last night. Furthermore, solar panels and water tanks, which are indispensable for the survival of the community, were destroyed. Together in prayer with the whole Christian community, we express our closeness and condolences to the families affected by this senseless tragedy. At the same time, we cannot but express that we are at a loss to comprehend how such an attack could be carried out, even more so as the whole Church prepares for Christmas.

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem follows this developing situation with great concern and shall provide additional information as needed.

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