October 10, 2023

Israeli ambassador says Hamas attack a catastrophe of ‘biblical dimensions;’ pope prays for peace

ROME (OSV News)—The shock of the surprise attack by Hamas militants on Israel, in which hundreds were killed, wounded or kidnapped, has left a traumatic mark on Israeli citizens, said the country’s ambassador to the Vatican.

“I would say this is a catastrophe that I would describe in biblical dimensions,” Raphael Schutz, Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, told OSV News on Oct. 9.

“Total families were murdered—grandparents, parents and children, in villages, in kibbutzim, in the towns around Gaza. There is a feeling of a national trauma,” Schutz said.

The number of men, women and children who have died, he added, is on “a scale that we have not known, I would say, since the beginning of the establishment of Israel.”

The surprise attack drew widespread condemnation from the international community, with many world leaders calling for restraint and an end to further escalation of violence.

During his Sunday Angelus address on Oct. 8, Pope Francis led pilgrims in praying for the victims of the attack and “for all who are living hours of terror and anguish.”

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. Israeli officials on Oct. 10 said more than 1,000 had been killed, and officials in Gaza said the death toll among Palestinians was more than 700.

“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.

“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 continued. “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.”

Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford, Ill., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, called for prayers for peace in the Holy Land and decried the “continued tensions and violence that erupted into warfare between [Hamas] and Israel.

“The world is once again shocked and horrified by the outbreak of ferocious violence in the Holy Land. Reports have surfaced indicating large numbers of wounded and dead, including many civilians,” Bishop Malloy said in an Oct. 8 statement.

“As we pray urgently for peace, we recall especially all the families and individuals suffering from these events,” Bishop Malloy’s statement said, adding calls for respect for civilian populations and the release of hostages. “Almost 50 years to the day of the launch of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, once again war is spilling out in the Holy Land. With it brings the mounting casualties and hostilities unfolding on all sides, and increased threats to the status quo of the Holy Places among Jews, Muslims and Christians further dimming any hope for peace.”

President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni spoke by phone on Oct. 9 and issued a joint statement expressing their “steadfast and united support to the State of Israel” and “unequivocal condemnation of Hamas and its appalling acts of terrorism.”

“Our countries will support Israel in its efforts to defend itself and its people against such atrocities,” they wrote.

“All of us recognize the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, and support equal measures of justice and freedom for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” the statement continued. “But make no mistake: Hamas does not represent those aspirations, and it offers nothing for the Palestinian people other than more terror and bloodshed.”

The attack on Israel began in the early hours of the morning on Oct. 7 when Hamas militants launched a multi-pronged attack in southern Israel, killing civilians in cars and homes, and taking hostages to Gaza.

Several videos seen by OSV News showed militants gunning down an entire family in their home, while another video showed militants stepping on the body of a civilian shot in his car.

The attack prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to declare war against Hamas. According to Palestine’s official news agency WAFA, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held an emergency leadership meeting after the attack in which he emphasized “the right of the Palestinian people to defend themselves against the terrorism of settlers and the occupation forces.”

Due to the coordination of the attack, several media outlets speculated that Hamas militants may have received intelligence from Iran. Although Iran publicly expressed its support for Palestine, the country’s foreign ministry denied on Oct. 9 allegations of its involvement.

While acknowledging the attack represented “a huge intelligence failure” by Israel, Schutz said that at the moment it was “premature to ask about how exactly it happened.

“These are questions that should be asked at a later stage because right now I believe that in Israel, of course, we have to fight in order to regain control of our territory and punish Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in a way that they will regret the crimes that they commit,” he said.

Schutz told OSV News he had several “private conversations” with Vatican officials, in which they expressed their prayers “for peace and for the well-being of the people in Israel.”

However, the ambassador’s office criticized an Oct. 7 statement by the patriarchs and heads of the Churches in Jerusalem which said that the violence and suffering in the Holy Land was “due to the prolonged political conflict and the lamentable absence of justice and respect for human rights.”

“We unequivocally condemn any acts that target civilians, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity or faith,” the patriarchs’ statement read.

In a statement released on Oct. 9, the Israeli Embassy to the Holy See objected to the “immorality of using linguistic ambiguity,” and said many of those who spoke on the attack “didn’t find it difficult to understand it and condemned the hideous crime, naming its perpetrators and acknowledging Israel’s basic right to defend itself against the atrocity.”

OSV News reached out to the Palestinian ambassador to the Holy See for comment on Oct. 9, but did not hear back.

The Israeli ambassador said that extremist groups in other parts of the world, such as Pakistan and Nigeria, have carried out attacks targeting innocent Muslims, yet link their actions “to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Acts of terror in Pakistan, Nigeria or other places are rightly perceived as the hideous crimes they are. Only when such atrocities target Israelis some try to explain, understand or even justify them with the false pretext of the conflict,” he said.

This, he warned, has led some to justify Hamas’ attack against Israel.

“People who are trying to find rational explanations anchored in a territorial conflict to such war crimes are wrong. This has nothing to do with the borders of Israel; it has to do with the existence of Israel,” Schutz said. †

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