Pope Francis urges Hamas to free hostages, says Israel has right to self-defense

October 11, 2023 - 5:18 PM
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Pope Francis speaks as he leads the weekly general audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican, October 11, 2023. (Reuters/Remo Casilli)

VATICAN CITY Pope Francis, in his strongest comments since the start of the conflict in Gaza, on Wednesday called for the release of all hostages taken by Hamas militants and said Israel has a right to defend itself.

Speaking in a somber voice at the end of his weekly general audience to thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square, he also expressed grave concern over Israel’s siege imposed on Gaza.

“I continue to follow, with pain and apprehension, what is happening in Israel and Palestine. So many people killed, and others wounded. I pray for those families who saw a feast day turn into a day of mourning, and I ask that the hostages be immediately released,” he said.

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“It is the right of those who are attacked to defend themselves, but I am very worried by the total siege in which Palestinians live in Gaza, where there have also been many innocent victims,” he said.

On Saturday, Hamas gunmen from the Gaza Strip rampaged through parts of southern Israel, in the deadliest Palestinian militant attack in Israel’s history.

Israel’s military said the death toll in Israel had reached 1,200 by Wednesday and more than 2,700 people had been wounded.

The pope’s mention of Israel’s right to self-defense followed diplomatic pressure from Israel for him to make such a statement, following earlier statements from the pope and Vatican officials which Israel saw as too timid.

Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican, Raphael Schutz, told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference in Rome on Monday: “I understand the Vatican wants peace. We all want peace. But I would like to hear stronger words about Israel’s right to defend itself.”

In his comments on Wednesday, the pope said “Terrorism and extremism do not help reach a solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians but fuel hatred, violence, revenge and cause suffering for both sides”.

Gaza’s health ministry said at least 950 people have been killed and 5,000 injured in the crowded coastal enclave.

“The Middle East does not need war but peace, a peace built on justice, on dialogue and the on the courage to be fraternal,” Francis said.

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– Editing by Bernadette Baum