As bombs fell and tanks penetrated deep into Gaza in late October, Israeli President Isaac Herzog held a fraught phone call with Pope Francis. The Israeli head of state was describing his nation’s horror over the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 when the pope issued a blunt rejoinder.

It is “forbidden to respond to terror with terror,” Francis said, according to a senior Israeli official familiar with the call, which has not been previously reported.

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Pope Francis delivers his blessing during a meeting with the members of the 2023 World Youth Day organizing committee Thursday at the Vatican. Andrew Medichini/Associated Press

Herzog protested, repeating the position that the Israeli government was doing what was needed in Gaza to defend its people. The pope continued, saying those responsible should indeed be held accountable, but not civilians.

That private call would inform Israeli interpretations of Francis’s polemic statement, at his Nov. 22 general audience in St. Peter’s Square, that the conflict had “gone beyond war. This is terrorism.” Taken with the diplomatic exchange – deemed so “bad” by the Israelis that they did not make it public – the implication seemed clear: The pope was calling their campaign in Gaza an act of terrorism.

“How else could it be interpreted?” said the senior official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.


The Vatican declined to clarify whether the pope was publicly or privately describing Israeli actions in Gaza as “terrorism.” But in a statement to The Washington Post, it acknowledged a call between the pope and Herzog. “The phone call, like others in the same days, takes place in the context of the Holy Father’s efforts aimed at containing the gravity and scope of the conflict situation in the Holy Land,” the statement read.

A spokesman in the Israeli president’s office declined an opportunity to comment, saying, “We are not inclined to refer to private conversations.”

But the public words from the pope have sparked an outcry from pro-Israel groups, such as the American Jewish Committee, and rekindled historical tensions between some Jewish leaders and the Vatican.

In a sense, the pope’s comments crystallized growing global horror over the loss of civilian life in Gaza. More than 13,300 people have been killed there since Israel launched its military campaign in early October, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Francis seemed to react much as humanitarian groups and other world leaders had.

Yet there is concern among some pro-Israel organizations that, even while the Vatican holds less moral sway than it once did, Francis has greater potential than most political leaders to influence global sentiment.

“I think the risk is significant,” said Karma Ben Johanan, a scholar on Jewish-Christian relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “The pope does have, even in our semi-secular world, a moral stature, and his spiritual guidance is much appreciated. If the implication is that Israel has no right to defend itself, the risk is that this becomes a more popular opinion. It becomes more difficult for Jewish-Catholic relations.”



On Nov. 22, in the hours before his general audience and “terrorism” comment, Francis held two emotional meetings: One with relatives of people killed in Gaza and the other with families of hostages taken by Hamas.

In the session with the Palestinians, the pope wept as they spoke of the massive death toll, said Shireen Hilal, a professor who lost two family members. She and others in attendance said Francis used the word “genocide” in English.

“He knew exactly what was happening, how hard it is to live in Gaza,” she said. “He knew all the circumstances. Knew there was no electricity, no gas, no fuel, no proper good water, no medical assistance. He also knew that the church was suffering in Gaza.”

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Palestinians visit their houses destroyed in the Israeli bombings southeast of the Gaza City on Tuesday. Adel Hana/Associated Press

A Vatican spokesman told reporters that as far as he knew, the pope had not said “genocide,” but he did not categorically rule it out. The pope has regularly warned of the suffering in Gaza and called for more humanitarian aid and a lasting cease-fire. The Vatican says he has also maintained daily contact with a Catholic church in Gaza sheltering 700 Palestinians.

The pope’s Jewish critics complain that more broadly, he has focused on the plight in Gaza, mentioning it frequently, without dedicating an equal sense of outrage to the loss of life in Israel – something Vatican officials deny. His critics also blame him for failing to specifically denounce comments they view as antisemitic from Egypt’s Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, with whom Francis had developed warm relations.


Alfonso Pedatzur Arbib, the chief rabbi of Milan, expressed dismay that the Vatican arranged to meet with Israelis and Palestinians on the same day as if the Israelis were not entitled to “exclusive solidarity.” The Israeli families had pushed hard for a meeting, which came together only after difficult negotiations in which the Vatican sought to avoid sending a political message. The Israelis, however, continued to press, hoping the pope’s stature would aid their cause.

After the encounter, they expressed gratitude, describing the pope as compassionate. Some, however, said they were disappointed by the brevity of the audience – less than 20 minutes – and that so few of them were able to speak.

Some were also taken aback by Francis’s comments hours later when he seemed to equate Israeli’s response in Gaza to terrorism.

“In Rome, we felt he was with us, but in front of the world, it felt a bit different,” said Romi Cohen, 19, whose twin brother is being held hostage in Gaza. She added, “I personally feel that comparing the two sides when talking about terror is not something that (should) happen.”

APTOPIX Israel Palestinians

Palestinians line up for food Thursday in Rafah, Gaza Strip, during a temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Hatem Ali/Associated Press


The pope’s comment set off a firestorm.


“The pope, because he is the pope, has to measure his words,” said American Rabbi Abraham Cooper, director of global social action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who has met with Francis three times. “To show empathy for Palestinians who lost loved ones in Gaza is a decent thing to do. But what the pope was approaching, and I hope he didn’t get there, was to give a moral equivalency to the medieval butchery (of the Hamas attack) and the acts of a democratic country.”

Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference and a confidant of the pope, sought to reframe Francis’s remark.

“This does not mean putting everyone on the same level,” Zuppi told reporters last week. “October 7th was a tragedy, full stop. It was a tragedy.”

Still, the blowback continued. Critics questioned the pope for not explicitly condemning Hamas. Some Jewish leaders suggested Francis had a responsibility to not only stand up for Israel but take a stand against an alarming rise in antisemitism.

“What’s happening right now is a return to spite and demonization of the Jews,” Pedatzur Arbib said. “Stunning polls are saying most Italian students think Israel can be compared to Nazis. Something big is happening … all inhibitions are being forsaken. I’d expect an unambiguous action from the church, which I have yet to see.”

Israeli officials – if not rabbis and Jewish groups – have held back from publicly denouncing the pope.


The government has been quick to defend itself against other criticism of its military response. It has engaged in a war of words with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, among others.

The difference in the case of the pope is partly because the conversation with Herzog was confidential, Israeli insiders said. But the government may also worry that a public fight with Francis – with his potential to influence as many as 1.3 billion Catholics – could prove even more harmful than the terrorism remark.

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Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment on Nov. 23 in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel. Leo Correa/Associated Press


Even his harshest Jewish critics are not suggesting that Francis is trafficking in antisemitism, a scourge he has repeatedly denounced.

As a cardinal in Buenos Aires – home to one of the world’s largest Jewish populations – Francis was known to celebrate Jewish holidays with locals, helping to light menorahs during Hanukkah.

In 2015, he marked the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate – the Vatican II declaration that sought to remove Biblical-era blame for Jesus’s death on the Jewish people – with one of the strongest defenses of Israel by a sitting pope. “To attack Jews is antisemitism, but an outright attack on the State of Israel is also antisemitism,” he said.


More than previous pontiffs, though, the first Latin American pope has also championed human rights, seeing the downtrodden, the underdogs, and the oppressed as his primary cause. He reflects the Global South’s general distrust and skepticism of the West and its allies, as well as more sympathetic views toward Palestinians and Russia.

It was in that context that Francis visited Bethlehem in 2014 and prayed alongside a West Bank separation barrier graffitied with the slogan “Free Palestine!”

Francis has become even less cautious in the latter stage of his papacy, expressing himself in strong and candid terms. Last year, he suggested Russian President Vladimir Putin had invaded Ukraine in part because of “the barking of NATO at Russia’s door.” He recently decried a “strong reactionary attitude” among American Catholics – subsequently removing one critic, Texas Bishop Joseph Strickland, and stripping the traditional privileges of another, U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke.

“These are apparently spontaneous throwaways that actually match his convictions,” said Marco Politi, a Francis biographer. “There can be blunders,” Politi said, like when the pope seemed to glorify Russia’s imperial past in unscripted remarks to Catholic youths in St. Petersburg. “But when he speaks of terror . . . it’s his take on how normal people talk, with easy words. Killing many thousands of people in Gaza is terrorism; that’s it.”


Faiola and Pitrelli reported from Rome and Loveluck from Jerusalem. Miriam Berger in Jerusalem and Lior Soroka in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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