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Gerard O’ConnellApril 03, 2024
People inspect the site where World Central Kitchen workers were killed in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

Concerned about a further escalation of war in the Middle East, Pope Francis renewed his call for “an immediate ceasefire in Gaza” following Israel’s killing of seven international aid workers and its attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus.

He appealed yet again that the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, many of whom are at risk of starvation, be given “access to humanitarian aid” and renewed his call for the release of the 130 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.

Pope Francis made his heartfelt appeal at the end of the public audience in St. Peter’s Square on April 3, when he told thousands of pilgrims that “unfortunately, sad news continues to come from the Middle East.”

One woman and six men working for the humanitarian organization World Central Kitchen were killed by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza on April 1. One of the victims, Jacob Flickinger, age 33, was an American with dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship; three were British nationals. The female victim was from Australia, and the driver was a Palestinian. One of the aid workers, Damian Soból, from Poland, was Catholic.

“He never feared anything,” Krzysztof Rodzen, a friend of Mr. Soból from the Polish city of Przemysl, bordering Ukraine, told OSV News. Mr. Soból was “a man who would help anyone even for the price of his own life,” he said.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the three cars carrying the aid workers were hit “unintentionally.”

In an April 2 statement, the World Central Kitchen, founded by Catholic celebrity chef José Andrés, said the workers were leaving the Deir al-Balah warehouse after delivering 100 tons of humanitarian food in “two armored cars branded with the WCK logo” when the attack happened.

The organization said that despite coordinating the delivery with the Israeli military, the convoy was struck in an apparent “targeted attack” by the Israeli Defense Forces.

“I express my deep regret for the volunteers killed while engaged in the distribution of humanitarian aid in Gaza. I pray for them and their families,” a grim-faced Pope Francis said.

The killing of the W.C.K. workers sparked international indignation and protests from the governments of the United Kingdom, Poland and Australia. President Biden and his administration also lamented the deaths and called for a rapid investigation into the incident and full disclosure of the findings.

António Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, denounced the killings and demanded the immediate implementation of the ceasefire voted for by the U.N. Security Council on March 25. He recalled that in addition to the seven aid victims, Israeli attacks in Gaza have already caused the deaths of 196 humanitarian workers, of whom 175 worked for the United Nations in Gaza.

“I renew my appeal for the exhausted and suffering civilian population to be given access to humanitarian aid,” Pope Francis said today. International humanitarian organizations such as Oxfam and the Norwegian Refugee Council, and U.N. agencies like UNRWA and Unicef, report that the majority of Gaza’s population is hungry and on the brink of famine because of the extreme restrictions Israel has placed on the entry of humanitarian aid to the Gaza enclave. Furthermore, various health agencies and local media report that 27 children have already died from malnutrition or dehydration in Gaza.

As he has done on numerous occasions since Oct. 7, Pope Francis again called for the immediate release of the 130 Israeli and foreign national hostages being held captive by Hamas and, it seems, some other armed groups in Gaza.

Pope Francis appealed to all sides in the Middle East—meaning especially Israel and Iran—to “avoid all irresponsible attempts to broaden the conflict in the region.” He did so amid mounting concern in the Vatican and internationally that the war in the Middle East risks escalating into a much wider and more dangerous conflict following the Israeli attacks on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria, and on Hezbollah military leaders in Lebanon.

Pope Francis concluded with a wider call to the international community and governments, saying, “Let us work so that this and other wars that continue to bring death and suffering to so many parts of the world may end as soon as possible.” Over the past six months, following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in southern Israel, at least 32,975 have been killed as a result of the Israeli bombardment in Gaza, including more than 13,000 children, according to the Gazan health ministry.

Then, turning his thoughts from the Middle East to Europe, Pope Francis said, “Let us not forget tormented Ukraine—so many dead!” Two years after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, President Volodymyr Zelensky said 31,000 Ukrainians had been killed. He did not mention the number of injured, but it is estimated to be double or triple that number.

Then, in a dramatic gesture, the Jesuit pope held up “a rosary and a book of the New Testament left by a soldier who died in the war [in Ukraine].” He told the pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, “This boy was called Oleksandr [Alexander], and he was 23 years old.” He said, “Alexander read the New Testament and the Psalms, and in the Book of Psalms he had underlined Psalm 130: ‘Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord! Lord, hear my voice!’ This 23-year-old boy died in Avdiïvka in the war. He had his life ahead of him. And this is his rosary and his New Testament, which he read and prayed.”

America has learned that the New Testament and rosary were given to the pope by Lucía Caram, O.P., an Argentine nun who lives in Spain and has made more than 20 trips to Ukraine to help wounded and needy people there. She brought the young man’s objects back from one of her many humanitarian visits to that war-torn country.

As the crowd in the square watched in silence, Pope Francis concluded, “I would like us to take a moment of silence, all of us, thinking about this boy and many others like him who died in this folly of war. War always destroys! Let us think of them, and let us pray.”

His words were followed by a minute of silent prayer for those who have died in these wars and for peace in Ukraine and the Middle East.

Material from OSV News was used in this report.

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