The Vatican’s plea for peace amid the new war in the Holy Land

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Smoke rises amid destroyed buildings in the Gaza Strip as seen from Israel's border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel Oct. 18, 2023. (OSV News photo/Amir Cohen, Reuters)

Violence in the Holy Land, tragically, is nothing new, nor is the horror brought upon innocent human beings.

In recent days, Israeli children died asleep in their beds when Palestinian missiles destroyed their homes. Innocent Jews have been seized as hostages. In Gaza, Palestinian hospital patients died because Israeli attacks destroyed access to the electricity needed to power the life support machinery upon which the patients depended. Gaza has been pulverized.

Pope Francis deplored the situation, begging for an end to the violence, whatever its source. Still, now some criticize his response to the crisis, because, they say, by citing injuries done to Palestinians by Israeli retaliation, the Holy Father took the Palestinian side.

In fact, he expressed no political opinion. He decried the horrors experienced on both sides.

Historic Vatican diplomacy

The Vatican’s longstanding policy in international disputes is to be neutral in commenting on disagreements, but, at the same time, it sees as its solemn obligation to speak about, focus upon, and demand, as a priority, concern for all who are injured, regardless of the flag flying over them.

For example, Britain and Argentina went to war in 1982 over islands in the South Atlantic claimed by both countries. Coincidentally, Pope St. John Paul II was scheduled to visit the United Kingdom. He went to Britain, but then he immediately flew to Argentina, a trip that had not been planned, because he wanted no one to see in his visit to Britain a preference for the British position in the quarrel.

In both countries, he pleaded for peace and secure conditions for all, Argentine or British, because all lives, and the shared human dignity of all, had to be respected. No matter what, respect human life.

The Vatican and Israel today

These facts are essential. The Holy See fully acknowledges the legitimacy of Israel, as a sovereign nation, Jewish, by definition, maintaining full diplomatic relations with Israel, posting an ambassador, or nuncio, in Israel, and receiving, in Rome, the government of Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See, an official separate from the Israeli ambassador to Italy.

Israeli leaders have met recent popes, including Pope Francis, and popes have visited Israel, engaging with Israeli leaders, political and religious.

Knowing and condemning antisemitism which so tragically has tormented Jews throughout history, is so real even now to Israelis and Jews everywhere, which stubbornly still lives, recent popes denounced it. The Church officially expunged from Catholic liturgies, pastoral practice, and catechisms anything that might prompt bigotry toward Jews.

When the current turmoil in Gaza erupted, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the papal Secretary of State, and second highest-ranking authority in the Catholic Church, went to the Israeli embassy to the Holy See in Rome to express sadness. His visit confirmed, once more, papal regard for Israel as a sovereign nation.

He also telephoned the head of the Palestinian authority to declare concerns for Palestinians affected by Israeli retaliation. Repeatedly, popes, and Church leaders, bemoaned the misery endured by Palestinians under the existing arrangements, now generations old.

Calls to respect human dignity

Five years ago, the United States, during the Trump administration, moved the American embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Jews and Palestinians fight bitterly about Jerusalem, each claiming it as their holy city. To stay out of the argument, no major government on the planet seats its representative to Israel in Jerusalem. The Vatican considered the American decision provocative and insensitive to Palestinians.

Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, patriarch of Jerusalem, and head of Israel’s Catholic community offered himself in exchange for Israelis kidnapped by Palestinians and held as hostages. A brave, bold, selfless gesture, recalling the shepherd who gives his life for his sheep, it emphasized the Church’s unqualified, constant contention that each human being, a blessed gift from God, deserves certain specific rights.

Until all respect universal human dignity, and act accordingly, death, anguish, hatred, and fear will ravage the land called holy, and the pope knows it.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.