By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Jewish groups have criticised Pope Francis and demanded clarifications over his comments that they saw as accusing both Hamas and Israel of “terrorism”.
Francis made the comments on Wednesday after meeting separately with Jewish relatives of hostages held by Hamas and with Palestinians with family in Gaza.
Later that day at his general audience in St. Peter’s Square, he spoke of the meetings, saying he felt the pain of both sides.
“This is what wars do. But here we have gone beyond wars. This is not war. This is terrorism,” he said.
He asked for prayers so that both sides would “not go ahead with passions, which, in the end, kill everyone”.
In a toughly worded statement on Thursday, the Council of the Assembly of Italian Rabbis (ARI) accused the pope of “publicly accusing both sides of terrorism”.
It went on to accuse unnamed “Church leaders” of not condemning the Hamas attack and of “putting the aggressor and the attacked on the same plane in the name of a supposed impartiality”.
At the Palestinian news conference on Wednesday, those who met with the pope said he condemned Hamas’ action as terror but also quoted him as saying that “terror should not justify terror”. They also quoted him as using the word “genocide” to describe the situation in Gaza.
Gunmen from Hamas burst across the border fence on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and seizing about 240 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.
Since then, more than 14,000 Gazans have been killed by Israeli bombardment, around 40% of them children, according to health authorities in the Hamas-ruled territory.
In a posting on Wednesday evening on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) thanked the pope for meeting the families of hostages and for his repeated calls to free those being held.
But the AJC added: “Later in the day, he described the Israel-Hamas war as ‘beyond war’ as ‘terrorism.’ Hamas’ butchering and kidnapping of civilians is terrorism. Israel’s self-defense is not. Vatican, please clarify”.
In a statement, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a U.S.-based Jewish human rights organization, called on the pope “not to forget that all the loss and suffering since October 7th stems from the intolerable actions of Hamas”.
It said all the suffering and loss of both the families of hostages and civilians in Gaza was “on the hands of the Hamas terrorists who, on October 7th, inflicted in the most brutal way, the worst mass murder of Jews since the defeat of Nazi Germany and World War II”.
The Italian rabbis questioned the worth of “decades of Jewish-Christian dialogue” if when Jews are attacked the Vatican responds with “diplomatic acrobatics”.
Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, who has gone on several peace missions in Ukraine for the pope, defended him on Thursday, telling reporters that the pontiff was “not putting everyone on the same plane” and that the pope “understands the motivations of the Israeli government”.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Andrew Heavens)