Pope Francis deplores Israeli killings of civilians in Gaza church

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) -Pope Francis on Sunday again suggested Israel was using “terrorism” tactics in Gaza, deploring the reported killing by the Israeli military of two Christian women who had taken refuge in a church complex.

At his weekly blessing, Francis referred to a statement about an incident on Saturday by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Catholic authority in the Holy Land.

The Patriarchate said an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) “sniper” killed the two women, whom the pope named as Nahida Khalil Anton and her daughter Samar, as they walked to a convent of nuns in the compound of the Holy Family Parish.

The Patriarchate statement said seven other people were shot and wounded as they tried to protect others.

“I continue to receive very grave and painful news from Gaza,” Francis said. “Unarmed civilians are the objects of bombings and shootings. And this happened even inside the Holy Family parish complex, where there are no terrorists, but families, children, people who are sick or disabled, nuns.”

Francis said they were killed by “snipers” and also referred to the Patriarchate’s statement that a convent of nuns of the order founded by Mother Teresa was damaged by Israeli tank fire.

“Some would say ‘It is war. It is terrorism.’ Yes, it is war. It is terrorism,” he said.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the incident was still under review and had no immediate comment on the pope’s words.

The Israeli military said that church representatives had contacted it early on Saturday regarding explosions in the area but did not report any casualties in the church complex.

“The IDF only targets terrorists and terror infrastructure and does not target civilians, no matter their religion,” the military said.

The pope’s remarks on Sunday marked the second time in less than a month that he used the word “terrorism” while speaking of events in Gaza.

On Nov. 22, after meeting separately with Israeli relatives of hostages held by Hamas and with Palestinians who have family in Gaza, he said: “This is what wars do. But here we have gone beyond wars. This is not war. This is terrorism.”

Later that day, a messy dispute broke out over whether he used the word “genocide” to describe events in Gaza, with Palestinians who met him insisting that he did and the Vatican saying he did not.

Jewish groups criticised the pope for last month’s “terrorism” comments.

Israel stepped up its bombardment of Gaza overnight and into Sunday, killing at least 40 people, Palestinians said, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued the only way to secure the release of hostages was intense military pressure on Hamas.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; editing by Giles Elgood and Paul Simao)