Vatican City, Nov 22, 2023 / 17:30 pm (CNA).
Pope Francis received at the Vatican on Wednesday, separately and privately, a delegation of relatives of Israeli hostages held by Hamas terrorists, and another delegation of relatives of Palestinians who live in Gaza.
The delegations consisted of 12 Israelis and 10 Palestinians who met with the Holy Father. In the meetings, each lasting 20 minutes, some of those affected by the war ravaging the Holy Land had the opportunity to tell their stories to the pontiff and express to him their desire for peace.
Read CNA’s coverage of Pope Francis’ meeting with the families of Israeli hostages here.
“This is terrorism”
After the meetings, Pope Francis participated in the general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. At the end of his catechism, he referred to these meetings and stated “this is no longer war, this is terrorism.”
He urged “persevering in prayer for all those who are suffering because of wars in so many parts of the world” especially for Ukraine and for Israel and Palestine.
The Holy Father stated that he “heard how both (sides) suffer: wars do this, but here we have gone beyond wars, this is not waging war, this is terrorism. Please, let us move forward for peace, let us pray for peace, let us pray a lot for peace.”
“May the Lord put his hand there, may the Lord help us solve the problems and not continue with the passions that in the end kill everyone. We pray for the Palestinian people, we pray for the Israeli people, so that peace may come,” he prayed.
The Vatican denies that the Pope spoke of “genocide”
After the audience, both delegations held different press conferences to speak to the media about their meeting with Pope Francis.
The members of the Palestine group talked about how the Israeli bombs had ended the lives of many of their relatives.
They noted that the pontiff had referred to what is happening in Gaza as a “genocide” and that he had pointed out that “terrorism cannot be responded to with terrorism.”
The director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni, however, denied that the pontiff had spoken of “genocide,” and stated that he used “the terms with which he has expressed himself” during the general audience and words that in any case represent the terrible situation that Gaza is going through.”
When asked by journalists, Shireen Halil, a Palestinian and Christian woman from Bethlehem, reiterated that they met with the Holy Father to “ask for peace and justice” and not to “manipulate the pope’s words.”
Halil noted that at the beginning of the audience they felt “astonished” by the amount of information the Holy Father knew about the conflict.
Mohammed Halalo, who lives in Belgium, said that just a few days ago a bomb from an Israeli air strike fell on the building where his relatives lived. “My entire family has lost their lives in an instant,” he lamented.
“We asked the pope to visit Gaza”
Palestinian Yousef Alkhoury conveyed his fear that “we will get used to the blood” of war and said that they asked Pope Francis to visit Gaza.
Halalo stated that the Holy Father responded that that was “a good idea” and that he “promised” to consult through diplomatic channels to study a safe time to go. “We believe that his presence can bring peace to the region,” he said.
In response to a question from one of the journalists about their perception of Hamas, the Palestinian delegation preferred not to make any statement on the matter.
“They have taken my family away from me”
The relatives of those kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in Gaza also had time to present their conclusions after the visit to the Holy Father. Of the 12, eight of them were able to speak alone with the pontiff.
During the press conference, Moshe Leimberg said that his wife and 17-year-old daughter were taken hostage by Hamas on Oct. 7.
“We haven’t seen or heard anything since then. It’s been 47 days. And I am alone. Every day I wake up… and wait a minute or two to hear the familiar sounds I’m used to hearing, and there’s nothing. “My family has been taken away from me, and my life is no longer what it was and it will never be again.”
A member of the Israeli delegation disagreed with the term “terrorism” used by Pope Francis to describe the war and stressed that it is a “false equivalence,” since it equates Hamas terrorism with Israeli defense operations.
Cease-fire agreement reached
The meetings took place shortly after Israel and Hamas reached an agreement for a temporary four-day ceasefire.
During this time, Hamas has agreed to the release of at least 50 of the kidnapped hostages in exchange for the release of 150 underage Palestinian women held in Israeli prisons.
More than 40 days since the war began, nearly 13,300 Palestinians have lost their lives in Gaza, of which about 5,600 are children. In Israel, the dead are estimated at 1,200.
This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.