Latin patriarch of Jerusalem says he would swap himself for Israeli hostages in Gaza

Asked by reporter, Pierbattista Pizzaballa says he would do ‘anything’ to free captive children; FM Cohen slams Vatican for initial Latin Patriarchate response to Hamas massacre

Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa (center) and other religious figures meet with French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna (right) at the French consulate in Jerusalem, October 15, 2023. (ALAIN JOCARD / AFP)
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa (center) and other religious figures meet with French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna (right) at the French consulate in Jerusalem, October 15, 2023. (ALAIN JOCARD / AFP)

The Roman Catholic Church’s top representative in the Holy Land said Monday that he would offer himself in exchange for Hamas’s Israeli hostages if it would help bring children home.

Asked during a briefing with reporters if he would be willing to offer himself for the hostages, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa said: “If I’m available for an exchange? Anything, if this could bring about the freedom of children, no problem. My absolute willingness.”

The offer is unlikely to be considered by Hamas, the terror group that is believed to be holding some 199 hostages in Gaza following its bloody October 7 incursion into Israel and murderous rampage through southern communities, in which it killed at least 1,300 people, mostly civilians.

Pizzaballa faced criticism from Israel for the initial response to the Hamas attack by Christian leaders in Jerusalem. The patriarchs’ statement made no explicit mention of the Hamas attack, restating in general terms its condemnation of any act that targets civilians.

On Sunday, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen issued a strong rebuke of the Vatican, telling the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States Paul Gallagher that Israel “expects the Vatican to come out with a clear and unequivocal condemnation of the murderous terrorist actions of Hamas terrorists who harmed women, children and the elderly for the sole fact that they are Jews and Israelis.”

“It is unacceptable that you put out a statement expressing worry primarily for Gazan civilians while Israel is burying 1,300 who were murdered,” Cohen said in their conversation, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets counterpart Paul Gallagher in Vatican, July 17, 2023. (Israel Embassy to The Vatican)

Catholic officials have had a range of reactions to the October 7 massacre.

Pope Francis said the day after the attack that he was following events “with apprehension and sorrow,” while expressing “solidarity with the relatives of the victims” and offering prayer “for all those who are experiencing hours of terror and anguish.”

But the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem put out a statement as the fighting was still raging that “the operation launched from Gaza and the reaction of the Israeli army are bringing us back to the worst period of our recent history. The too-many casualties and tragedies, which both Palestinians and Israeli families have to deal with, will create more hatred and division, and will destroy more and more any perspective of stability.”

Gallagher had been looking into making the first bilateral visit to Israel by a Vatican foreign minister before the fighting broke out.

Pope Francis leaves at the end of his Sunday Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on October 15, 2023. (Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

Last week, the pope called for the immediate release of the 200 hostages taken by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

“I ask that the hostages be released immediately,” the 86-year-old head of the worldwide Catholic Church said at the end of his weekly audience at the Vatican.

He added: “It is the right of those who are attacked to defend themselves, but I am very worried about the total siege in which the Palestinians live in Gaza, where there have also been many innocent victims.

“Terrorism and extremism do not help reach a solution to the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, but fuel hatred, violence, revenge and only make both sides suffer,” he continued. “The Middle East does not need war but peace, a peace built on justice, dialogue and the courage of fraternity.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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