Hosting families of Israelis held by Hamas, pope pledges to work to bring them home

In Vatican meeting with relatives of captives and slain soldiers whose bodies remain in Gaza, pontiff says he will liaise with governments and Muslim religious leaders

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

The families of Israeli captives and slain IDF soldiers held in Gaza meet with Pope Francis in the Vatican, December 21, 2022. (Israel's Embassy in the Vatican)
The families of Israeli captives and slain IDF soldiers held in Gaza meet with Pope Francis in the Vatican, December 21, 2022. (Israel's Embassy in the Vatican)

Pope Francis on Wednesday committed to work toward bringing home two Israeli civilians and two slain IDF soldiers held by Hamas in Gaza.

According to Israeli officials, the pope made the pledge during a 45-minute audience with the families of the captives in the Vatican.

“The Pope promised to work with governments and religious leaders, including Muslim leaders, to bring back the sons,” read a Foreign Ministry statement.

Francis shares a close friendship with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al Azhar Mosque and seen by many as the highest Sunni authority in Muslim jurisprudence.

Hamas currently holds two living Israelis — Hisham al-Sayed and Avera Mengistu — along with the bodies of two soldiers killed in the 2014 Gaza war, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin.

Francis spoke with each of the families and expressed particular solidarity with the suffering of the captives’ mothers.

“It is so difficult to comfort a mother’s tears,” he said, according to Israel’s embassy to the Holy See.

The visit, organized by the Foreign Ministry in cooperation with the Defense Ministry, is part of Israel’s campaign to maintain international awareness of the captives. The families were accompanied by Rafi Schotz, Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican, and Shuli Davidovich, head of the ministry’s Bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions.

File: Demonstrators marching with a banner showing the faces of captive Israeli civilian Avera Mengistu, and late soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin from the Israeli city of Ashkelon arrive at the Karmia kibbutz on August 5, 2022. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Schotz first requested the meeting in early October.

The event was a not a formal private meeting that a head of state would be given, but was instead officially part of the audiences the Pope regularly offers on Wednesdays.

The audience began at 8 a.m., and Francis apologized for getting them out of bed so early. According to individuals present, he took the time to listen to what each family had to say.

The Pope also asked for reports on the background of each of the four Israelis, which the Foreign Ministry is preparing.

“The meeting was a meaningful humanitarian act, and I hope that it will translate into tangible assistance from the Pope with the aim of bringing the sons home and easing the families’s suffering,” said Schotz.

This is not the only such issue with which Francis is currently involved. According to the pontiff, he has passed lists of more than 300 Ukrainian POWs to Moscow to facilitate prisoner exchanges.

The families are slated to meet with other senior Italian officials, including the deputy prime minister, the president of the chamber of deputies and Jewish leaders.

The four families also lit Hanukkah candles at the home of Israel’s envoy to Italy Alon Bar. Italy’s military chief of staff Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone was also in attendance.

The families of the Israeli captives and slain IDF soldiers held in Gaza light Hanukkah candles at the home of Israel’s envoy to Italy, Alon Bar, with Italy’s chief of staff Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone in attendance, December 21, 2022 (Israel’s Embassy in Italy)

Both al-Sayed and Mengistu had a history of mental illness. The two Israeli citizens crossed the Gaza boundary voluntarily between 2014 and 2015 and have since been held prisoner by Hamas.

The two soldiers, Shaul and Goldin, were killed during the 2014 war and their bodies were seized by Hamas. Both their families have repeatedly petitioned the Israeli government to push for a prisoner exchange deal to receive their children’s bodies.

Israel has sought such an exchange, but has not been able to reach an agreement with Hamas in the eight years since, with the terror group reportedly seeking an exorbitant number of Palestinian prisoners to be released.

In June, the Lebanese Al-Mayadeen news agency reported that Hamas was ready to conduct an “urgent humanitarian prisoner exchange” to swap al-Sayed for the release of all sick Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Al-Mayadeen, a Lebanese television network, is widely seen as close to the Hezbollah and Hamas terror groups.

Earlier this year, there were reports of an Israeli offer to trade hundreds of Palestinian prisoners convicted of terror offenses — but not murders — in exchange for the bodies and captives. The terror group rejected the proposal, demanding more in exchange, and talks stalled.

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