‘War is a defeat,’ Pope Francis insisted as he called for prayers for peace in Israel and Palestine. Speaking to thousands of people gathered in St Peter’s Square on 8 October for the recitation of the Angelus prayer, the pope said he is following events in Israel and Gaza ‘with apprehension and sorrow’.

A day earlier, militants in Gaza launched a massive attack on southern Israel, firing rockets and breaching the border.

‘The violence has exploded even more ferociously, causing hundreds of deaths and casualties,’ the pope told people gathered for the midday Sunday prayer.

‘I express my closeness to the families and victims,’ Pope Francis said. ‘I am praying for them and for all who are living hours of terror and anguish.’

‘May the attacks and weapons cease,’ he said. ‘Please!’

‘And let it be understood that terrorism and war do not lead to any resolutions, but only to the death and suffering of so many innocent people,’ Pope Francis said. ‘War is a defeat! Let us pray that there be peace in Israel and in Palestine.’

During October, the month traditionally devoted to the rosary, the pope asked Catholics to pray for Mary’s intercession ‘for the gift of peace in the many countries throughout the world marked by war and conflicts. And let us continue to remember the dear Ukraine, which suffers so much every day, which is so battered.’

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A woman holds up a sign that says ‘Pace’ (‘peace’ in Italian), as Pope Francis appeals for an end to the fighting between Israel and Palestine after reciting the Angelus prayer, 8 October 2023, with visitors in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican. (Photo by CNS/Vatican Media.)

Over the weekend, the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem also united in a call for peace and justice amid the unfolding violence, following the surprise attack by Hamas, which has left around 600 Israelis dead, among them civilians and dozens of soldiers and police who were killed battling the Hamas fighters. Over 2,000 people were injured.

Fears of a ground invasion of Gaza are growing after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to turn the besieged Palestinian enclave into a ‘deserted island,’ while the latest reported death toll of Palestinians is 313. Thousands of people in Palestinian territories have been injured in Israeli airstrikes, which began hours following the Hamas attack.

‘The Holy Land, a place sacred to countless millions around the world, is currently mired in violence and suffering due to the prolonged political conflict and the lamentable absence of justice and respect for human rights,’ the Patriarchs and Head of the Churches in Jerusalem said in an joint statement on 7 October.

As custodians of the Christian faith, the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches said they ‘stand in solidarity with the people of this region, who are enduring the devastating consequences of continued strife.’

‘We unequivocally condemn any acts that target civilians, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity or faith,’ said the Patriarchs, among them Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Cardinal Pizzaballa expressed ‘condemnation’ and great concern in an interview on 7 October with the Italian Catholic daily newspaper Avvenire.

‘We need to stop the violence and then apply diplomatic pressure to prevent the game of retaliation from becoming a vicious cycle from which it is difficult to escape. So [we must] try to bring back a minimum of reasonableness between the parties. Even if it seems difficult right now,’ said Pizzaballa, who became the first resident cardinal in Jerusalem’s history during a consistory in Rome on 30 September.

The Latin Patriarchate announced the postponement of all ceremonies to honour the newly created cardinal due to the current situation. The patriarchate also called for all Masses on 8 October to be offered for the intention of a ceasefire and an end to the ‘ongoing war in the Holy Land to prevent further bloodshed, shattering of lives and burial of hopes.’

‘May all religious leaders work to calm the situation and calm down the spirits. In short, let no one throw fuel on the fire. And I hope for prayers for peace. And already today we will carry out an initiative in this sense in all our churches,’ Cardinal Pizzaballa told Avvenire.

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Palestinian militants ride an Israeli military vehicle that was seized by gunmen who infiltrated areas of southern Israel, in the northern Gaza Strip, 7 October 2023. (Photo from OSV News /Ahmed Zakot, Reuters.)

Hamas breached Israel’s security gate in the early morning of 7 October and infiltrated dozens of Israel border communities, killing people in their cars and homes and taking both civilians and soldiers hostage, including kibbutz residents and young people attending a dance party. The police station in the city of Sderot was taken over but was later reclaimed.

The attack took place under the barrage of thousands of rocket attacks, which were largely intercepted by the Israeli Iron Dome defence system.

The attack coincided with the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, which marks the completion of the annual cycle of reading the Torah scroll. It also fell a day after the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the 1973 War, which began with a surprise attack on Israel by a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria on Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day of the year.

It follows a year of increasing violence from both settlers and the Israel Defense Forces after the election of Israel’s far-right nationalist government.

After the Israeli army and police gathered forces and responded to the attack, the Associated Press reported that Israeli Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari told reporters ‘hundreds of terrorists’ have been killed and dozens captured.

Meanwhile, Israeli forces also exchanged fire with Hezbollah over the weekend as Lebanon’s militant group fired dozens of rockets and shells at Israeli positions in a disputed area along the country’s northern border.

In the Italian newspaper interview, the reporter noted Cardinal Pizzaballa’s pain at the violence and concern that it would escalate because of the captive Israelis.

‘The extension of the attack. And the fact that there are many Israelis kidnapped, civilians too. These are decidedly new elements, also taking into account the context of great mistrust that exists. Of course, I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that the situation will get even worse. There will be retaliation for retaliation,’ he said.

The Patriarchs and Head of the Churches said that it is their ‘fervent hope and prayer’ that all parties involved ‘will heed this call for an immediate cessation of violence.’ They also called for dialogue ‘seeking lasting solutions that promote justice, peace and reconciliation for the people of this land, who have endured the burdens of conflict for far too long.’

Banner image: Smoke rises following Israeli strikes in Gaza, 7 October 2023. The strikes were in retaliation after Hamas breached Israeli security along the Gaza border at dawn and entered border communities amid a barrage of over 2,000 rockets, which reached into Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. (Photo from OSV News/Mohammed Salem, Reuters.)