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Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 29, 2024
Pope Francis blesses visitors at the end of his weekly general audience in the Vatican's Paul VI Audience Hall Jan. 17, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

“True peace remains distant” between Israel and Palestine until the two-state solution is implemented, Pope Francis said in an interview with the Italian daily La Stampa, published today, Jan. 29. The pope also discussed his health, how he deals with loneliness and the reception of the Vatican’s declaration on blessings for people in “irregular situations.”

“Right now, the conflict is expanding dramatically,” he said in the interview given to Domenico Agasso, the paper’s Vatican correspondent, on Friday, Jan. 26. Since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel’s invasion of Gaza, conflict has erupted between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon; Houthi fighters in Yemen have attacked commercial ships in the Red Sea, leading to retaliatory strikes in Yemen from the United States and Britain; Iran has fired missiles into Iraq and Syria, and the United States has targeted Iran-backed groups in Iraq. Since the pope spoke on Friday, a militant group attacked an American base in Jordan, close to the border with Syria, killing three American troops and injuring many others.

The pope again called for a two-state solution through the implementation of the Oslo Accords. “As long as that accord is not implemented, true peace remains distant,” Francis said. The agreement was brokered by Norway and signed by Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Washington, D.C., in 1993; a second accord was signed in Taba, Egypt, in 1995.

When asked what he feared most in this situation, Francis said, “The military escalation.” He explained, “The conflict can only worsen the tensions and the violence that are already marking the planet.”

“True peace remains distant” between Israel and Palestine until the two-state solution is implemented, Pope Francis said in an interview with the Italian daily La Stampa published today.

This conflict started when Hamas launched its attack in southern Israel on Oct. 7 killing around 1,200 Israelis and taking 240 hostages, of whom 132 are still being held in Gaza. Israel responded with a bombing campaign in Gaza that has gone on for more than 100 days and launched a ground invasion that has caused the deaths of over 26,400 Palestinians, more than 11,000 of them children and 7,500 women, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. More than 1.9 million people in Gaza have been displaced. On Jan. 26, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to take concrete steps to prevent acts of genocide, stop the killing of Palestinians and provide humanitarian aid.

Notwithstanding the ongoing conflict, Francis said he nourished “some hope” because “confidential meetings are being held that seek to reach an accord, a truce which would already be a good result.” He seemed to be alluding to the talks being held in Paris between representatives from Israel, Qatar, the United States and Egypt, which aim to reach an agreement for another temporary ceasefire and the release of hostages. Hamas is not participating directly in these talks.

When asked what the Holy See is doing as the conflict rages in the Middle East, the pope said that Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, “is a crucial figure [in this situation]. He is a great man. He moves well. He’s trying with determination to mediate.”

On a recent visit to the United States, Cardinal Pizzaballa celebrated Mass Our Lady of the Ridge in Chicago Ridge on Saturday. In a press conference before the Mass on Jan. 27, the cardinal called for a ceasefire in Gaza, saying: “Peace is not just an agreement. It is the desire to live close to one another peacefully.”

“The Christians and the people of Gaza—I do not mean Hamas—have a right to peace,” the pope said. He revealed that he has spoken with the Christians seeking refuge in the Holy Family parish in Gaza. “We see each other on the screen by Zoom,” he said. “I talk to the people. There are 600 people in the parish. They continue their life looking death in the face every day.”

“Then, the other priority is always the release of the Israeli hostages,” Francis said. He has appealed for their immediate release countless times since the Hamas attack.

“The Christians and the people of Gaza—I do not mean Hamas—have a right to peace,” the pope said.

La Stampa’s correspondent asked the pope how Vatican diplomacy was progressing in the Ukraine conflict, which started on Feb. 24, 2022, when Russia invaded the country. Francis recalled that he had entrusted “this complicated and delicate mission” to Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, the president of the Italian bishops’ conference, “who is brave and expert, and who is carrying out a constant and patient work of diplomacy to try and put conflict to the side and to build an atmosphere of reconciliation.”

He recalled that the cardinal went to Kyiv and Moscow, and then to Washington, D.C., and Beijing, and said that “the Holy See is trying to mediate for the release of prisoners and the return of Ukrainian civilians.” It is working especially with the Russian commissar for the rights of children, Maria Llova-Belova, “for the repatriation of the Ukrainian children who have been taken by force into Russia,” the pope said, referring to some 20,000 Ukrainian children still being held in Russia. He noted that some have returned home already.

Francis chose his words carefully when responding to a question if there is such a thing as a “just war.” The pope said, “One must distinguish and be very careful with the terms [one uses],” he said. “If people enter your house to rob you, and to attack you, then you defend yourself.” But he added, “I do not like to call this reaction ‘a just war,’ because it is a definition that can be instrumentalized. It is right and just to defend oneself, yes. But please let us speak of legitimate defense, in a way to avoid justifying wars that are always wrong.”

He identified the pillars that lead to peace in today’s world as “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue” and “the search for the spirit of solidarity and human fraternity.” He added: “We can no longer kill brothers and sisters. It does not make sense.” He repeated his call to believers to “pray for peace” and emphasized the importance of prayer because “it knocks at the heart of God, so that he may enlighten and lead human beings to peace. Peace is a gift of God, and he can give it to us even when war seems to be prevailing inexorably.”

Since the two wars started, Pope Francis has called people to pray for peace at almost every Wednesday general audience and Sunday Angelus when he greets people in St. Peter’s Square.

In the interview with La Stampa, the pope also answered many other questions. Speaking of the moment he was elected pope, he revealed, “I had a surprising inner sensation of peace.” He confirmed that “apart from some ailments,” his health “is better, it is good.” He acknowledged that like everyone else, he sometimes feels lonely, but then “I first of all pray.” He confirmed yet again, “I do not think of [resignation]” but recognized that it remains a possibility for every pope.

Responding to a question about his approval of “the blessing of persons in irregular situations, or of the same sex,” Francis repeated what he had said several times, including that Friday morning to the plenary assembly of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. “The Gospel is to make everyone holy,” he said. “Of course, there must be goodwill. And it is necessary to give precise instructions on the Christian life—I emphasize that it is not the union that is blessed, but the persons. But we are all sinners: Why should we make a list of sinners who can enter the church and a list of sinners who cannot be in the church? This is not the Gospel.”

Regarding criticisms of “Fiducia Supplicans,” the declaration on blessings issued on Dec. 18, Pope Francis remarked, “Those who vehemently protest belong to small ideological groups.”

He described the church in Africa as “a special case,” since “for them, homosexuality is something ‘ugly’ from a cultural point of view; they do not tolerate it.” But, he added, “I trust that gradually everyone will be reassured about the spirit of the declaration,” which “aims to include, not divide. It invites us to welcome and then entrust people and to trust in God.”

Asked if he fears a schism in the church, Francis said: “No! In the church, there have always been small groups that manifest reflections of a schismatic nature. One must let them carry on and pass away...and look ahead.”

He confirmed that this year he will travel to Belgium, Indonesia, Singapore, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea and then “there’s the hypothesis of Argentina,” whose newly elected president, Javier Milei, he will meet in Rome following the canonization of Argentina’s first woman saint, “Mama Antula.”

He concluded the interview by saying: “I feel like a parish priest. Of a very large parish, surely a planetary [parish]. I like to keep the spirit of a parish priest and to be in the midst of people, where I always find God.”

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