10 October 2023, The Tablet

Violence in the Holy Land belongs to ‘worst periods in our history’

Pope Francis said that said that “terrorism and war bring no solution but only death and the suffering of many innocent people”.

Violence in the Holy Land belongs to ‘worst periods in our history’

Rubble of a tower destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on 7 October. The IDF fired on Gaza after a surprise attack by Hamas.
Imago / Alamy

Church leaders decried the violence of an attack on Israel by Palestinian militants on Saturday and the Israeli military’s reaction.

Hamas launched a massive military operation dubbed the “al-Aqsa Flood” early on Saturday morning, firing thousands of rockets from Gaza into Israel while groups of fighters broke through border fences in the south of the country and attacked soldiers and civilians, taking dozens of hostages.

More than 900 Israelis were believed to have been killed over the weekend, while airstrikes and a counter-offensive by the Israeli Defence Forces killed almost 700 on the Palestinian side.  Casualties mounted rapidly as both combatants declared a state of “war”.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem said that the fighting was “bringing us back to the worst periods of our recent history”.

“The too-many casualties and tragedies, which both Palestinians and Israeli families have to deal with, will create more hatred and division, and will destroy more and more any perspective of stability,” said Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, appealing for international support to de-escalate the conflict.

This echoed an appeal from the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem for “the international community to redouble its efforts to mediate a just and lasting peace in the Holy Land”.

Their statement expressed solidarity with those “who are enduring the devastating consequences of continued strife” and their “fervent hope and prayer that all parties involved will heed this call for an immediate cessation of violence”.

Fr Gabriel Romanelli, the parish priest in Gaza, told Asia News that the Hamas operation “was in the air” for some time beforehand and “it was not known when, but many were certain that all this would happen”.

“This time served to prepare us, knowing that a new conflict would break out,” he said, though his parishioners still feared that the latest violence “will degenerate into a another war”.

Speaking after the Sunday Angelus, Pope Francis appealed for “a stop to the armed attacks” and prayed for victims “and for all those who are living through hours of terror and anxiety”. He said that “terrorism and war bring no solution but only death and the suffering of many innocent people”.

“War is a defeat! Every war is a defeat! Let us pray that there be peace in Israel and in Palestine.”

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, regretted that “we rely only on force, violence and conflict to solve problems”, with the latest outbreak threatening “the fragile hopes for peace that seemed to emerge on the horizon” in Israel’s relations with Saudi Arabia.

On Monday, Parolin began a speech at the Pontifical Gregorian University, at the start of a conference on documents from the pontificate of Pius XII, by condemning the “terrible and despicable attack on Israel”.  He emphasised that all civilians in Israel and Gaza are “totally innocent”.

“Unfortunately, terrorism, violence, barbarism and extremism undermine the legitimate aspiration of Palestinians and Israelis,” he said.

Over the weekend, the Israeli Embassy to the Holy See had issued a statement warning against “the use of linguistic ambiguities and terms that allude to a false symmetry” in any Vatican response to the violence.  It said that implying equivalence between the Hamas attack and Israel’s response “isn’t diplomatic pragmatism, it’s just wrong”.

Christian peace groups condemned the Hamas attack but many also said that it was provoked by Israeli actions and that the response was disproportionate.

Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR) in the US said that “the actions of Israel led to this current war: decades of military occupation with no end in sight, apartheid policies, recurrent massacres, and a siege so brutal that has turned Gaza into the largest open-air prison on earth”.

The group criticised the failure of the Biden administration to pursue a peaceful solution to the conflict while providing Israel with almost $3.8 billion annually in military aid.

“Even while pursuing normalisation agreements between Israel and Arab countries, the US has not worked to bring an end to the occupation or demanded an improvement in the rights and status of Palestinians,” it said.

“While horrified by Hamas’s actions and praying for all those, both Israeli and Palestinian, who have been killed, injured, and kidnapped, I am also deeply fearful of the death toll that is yet to come in Gaza,” said FoR executive director Ariel Gold.

The Washington-based ecumenical movement Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) called on all parties “to end all acts of violence and aggression and to pursue peaceful and diplomatic resolutions.”

It called on Hamas “to stop all acts of aggression and the targeting of Israeli civilians”, but CMEP also said that Israel's response was disproportionate and urged it “not to engage in military actions that devastate Palestinian civilian populations”.

CMEP opposes the collective punishment of all people in Gaza, which includes cutting off electricity and water supplies. It urged the US not to prioritise support of one side of the conflict over another “but support the safety and dignity of all people in the Holy Land, including Israelis and Palestinians”.

In its response, Pax Christi USA quoted a statement from Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), a Christian ecumenical organisation for justice and peace in the Holy Land.

FOSNA said that “those who choose war and violence in the pursuit of their goals must use every possible means to avoid killing non-combatants or targeting civilian infrastructure”.  It noted that Palestinians have no access to bomb shelters and no organised state structures.

It also said that the violence “was the inevitable outcome of Israel’s persistent and systematic violation of the rights of Palestinians” and urged that “Hamas is no longer excluded from the conversation” and instead “must be brought into a fruitful process leading towards peace with justice”.

In the UK, Cardinal Vincent Nichols prayed that “at the intercession of Mary, the Holy Spirit may be a bringer of peace in the conflicts spreading at this time in Israel and Gaza”, adding: “Having visited Gaza on two occasions, my heart goes out to its people who will now bear the consequences of the attack on Israel by Hamas militants.”

Preaching at the Church of the Holy Rosary in Marylebone on Sunday, he said:

“Violence is never a solution. Retribution is never a contribution to peace. Please pray today for that peace. Pray for all who have lost their lives and for the immediate release of those taken hostage.”

He prayed particularly for the small Catholic community in Gaza “who at this moment will be reaching out courageously to their neighbours”.

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