Pope Francis and United States President Joe Biden discussed the Israeli-Hamas conflict and other wars in a telephone conversation on Sunday, the Vatican said.
The conversation lasted about 20 minutes and “focused on conflict situations in the world and the need to identify paths to peace,” the Vatican said according to a report by The Jerusalem Post.
Israel is preparing for a ground assault on Gaza, two weeks after a Hamas attack in Israel killed 1,400 people.
Earlier on Sunday, Francis told crowds in St Peter’s Square he was deeply saddened by the “grave situation in Gaza,” where an Anglican hospital and a Greek Orthodox church had been bombed.
“Brothers, stop,” the pope said. Francis has several times called for the release of hostages.
Protest at UN office
Hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside the United Nations on Sunday demanding the release of hostages seized by Hamas.
The protest on the square outside the UN’s Palais des Nations headquarters in Geneva was organised by the Voice for Freedom coalition, bringing together several Christian Zionist organising committees.
The gathering therefore had a religious tone, with chants and slogans intermingled with prayers and psalms, AFP gathered.
Some demonstrators wore T-shirts that said, “Set them free”, and held placards reading: “Never again is NOW”, “Innocent life is non-negotiable” and “Children aren’t bargaining chips”.
The president of Christians for Israel International, Leon Meijer, urged the UN Human Rights Council to “work for the release of the hostages,” saying, “Save the lives of those who can still be saved.”
US seeks ground attack delay
The Biden administration has pressed Israel to delay its imminent invasion of Gaza to allow for the release of more hostages held by Hamas and for aid to reach Gaza, according to two sources who briefed CNN on the discussions.
The release of two Americans held by Hamas Friday signaled that more of roughly 200 people believed to be kidnapped by the militant group may be freed after they were taken during the group’s deadly attacks launched against Israel two weeks ago.
“The (administration) pressed Israeli leadership to delay because of progress on the hostage front,” and the need to get trucks of aid into Gaza, one person familiar with the discussions said.
Meanwhile, CNN reported that a senior Israeli official denied the US was seeking a delay of its ground incursion into Gaza. “We deny this report. We have a close dialogue and consultations with the US administration. The US is not pressing Israel in regards to the ground operation,” the official who was not named, said.
But when Biden, a Catholic, was asked Saturday if he was encouraging Israel to delay the invasion, he responded, “I’m talking to the Israelis.”
Hamas said it took about 200 hostages during the incursion into communities and military bases in southern Israel.
Qatar, acting as a middle-man for the US and Israel, has been leading the discussions with Hamas about releasing the hostages since they were abducted by the militant group.
Iran has warned Israel that the Middle East could go out of control if it does not stop strikes on Gaza.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian gave the warning at a news conference in Tehran on Sunday.
He said the US was to be blamed for providing military support to Israel.
But hours later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his people were in a battle for their lives and said the war against Hamas was “do or die”.
“I warn that the US and its proxy Israel that if they do not immediately stop the crime against humanity and genocide in Gaza, anything is possible at any moment and the region will go out of control,” Amir-Abdollahian was quoted as saying by BBC.
He said the results could be “severe, bitter” and “have far-reaching repercussions”, both regionally and for those advocating for war.
In neighbouring Syria where Iran has a military presence, Israeli missiles hit Damascus and Aleppo international airports early Sunday, killing at least two workers, according to Syrian state media.
Both airports have been taken out of use given the damage to their runways.