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Chief rabbi urges pope to amend terrorism remarks

Francis has accused both Israel and Hamas of terrorism.

Pope Francis meets at the Vatican with relatives of Israelis held captive in the Gaza Strip, Nov. 22, 2023. Photo by Yair Rotem.
Pope Francis meets at the Vatican with relatives of Israelis held captive in the Gaza Strip, Nov. 22, 2023. Photo by Yair Rotem.

Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau on Sunday urged Pope Francis to retract recent comments in which he seemingly accused both Israel and Hamas of “terrorism.”

The request came after Francis deplored the death of two women at the only Catholic church in the Gaza Strip on Dec. 16, which the Vatican blamed on Israel, as “terrorism,” and similar remarks last month after separate meetings with Israeli and Palestinian families at the Vatican that were strongly condemned by Jewish groups.

“I heard your statement following the attack on two women who were in the church compound in Gaza. I too am very sorry for their unnecessary death, my customary opinion on killing and death. However, I wish to comment on one statement that was made: ‘terror.’ This statement, made in reference to the occurrence, is incorrect and even outrageous,” Lau’s letter began.

The chief rabbi noted that the war broke out after the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre in which the terrorists killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, while around 240 others were abducted to Gaza.

“The State of Israel embarked on a just war in the face of attacks from Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen that threatened the very existence of the state. Islamic terrorism, which crosses almost all international borders, has reached our home. The murder, rape, vandalism and abuse suffered by civilians, the incessant calls for the destruction of Israel and the abduction of hundreds of innocents into captivity, including children, women, men and the elderly, forced upon us a war for our existence. A war for our survival. Our life,” Lau said.

“As a person who is knowledgeable of the world’s history, you are surely aware of the suffering of the Jewish people throughout the ages. The people who introduced the concept of one God and the values of the Torah—compassion, kindness and mercy—were forced to stand up for themselves.”

A mistake does not turn us into terrorists

The rabbi noted that the killing of the two women at the Holy Family Parish Church courtyard in Gaza City was “an unfortunate mistake” that “does not turn us into terrorists.

“It was not us who initiated the attacks with the stated purpose of murdering, pillaging, humiliating and killing civilians. On the contrary, we are doing everything possible to prevent and reduce harm to civilians.

“I apologize for feeling an inner obligation to respond to your words, but I am concerned that one of the innumerable followers of the head of the Catholic Church, who eagerly absorb your observations, may perhaps misinterpret your words. Therefore, based on our acquaintance and past meetings, I respectfully request you to change your definition of the events,” Lau wrote.

Francis has spoken out repeatedly calling for an end to the war and has tried to maintain the Vatican’s diplomatic neutrality in conflicts.

The Washington Post reported last month that the pope had previously told Israeli President Isaac Herzog in a phone conversation in October that it is “forbidden to respond to terror with terror.”

Last month, Jewish groups criticized the leader of the Catholic Church after he made similar public remarks that were seen as accusing both sides of terrorism following separate meetings with Israeli and Palestinian delegations at the Vatican.

“Here we’ve gone beyond war. This isn’t war anymore, this is terrorism.” he said at the time.

The Council of the Assembly of Italian Rabbis (ARI) accused the pope of “publicly accusing both sides of terrorism.”

“Hamas’s butchering and kidnapping of civilians is terrorism. Israel’s self-defense is not,” the New York-based American Jewish Committee wrote in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Vatican, please clarify.”

Earlier, the pope repeatedly called for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, including during his weekly Sunday addresses in Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City.

“In Gaza, spaces must be left to guarantee humanitarian aid and the hostages must be released immediately,” he said. “Cease fire! Cease fire! Stop, brothers and sisters. War is always a defeat.”

He has also condemned antisemitism in a meeting with European rabbis at the Vatican last month.

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