(photo credit: Matthew Wagner)
Archbishop Antonio Franco, papal nuncio to Israel, said Tuesday that he personally attempted to intercede with Hamas on behalf of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Franco also called on both Hizbullah and Israel to immediately stop the violence and enter into diplomatic negotiations.
"The pope is very concerned about the violent activity on both sides," said Franco. "The use of force can be understood under the present situation, but reason has to prevail. Each of the sides has aspirations, but the armed battle must stop and diplomatic solutions should be used."
Franco made the comments in his parish on the Mount of Olives during a meeting with about 30 Catholic school teachers from the US who are participating in an Anti-Defamation League-sponsored "Bearing Witness" program. During their six-day stay in Israel, the teachers learned about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post after the meeting, Franco said that immediately after the kidnapping he attempted to secure the release of Shalit via the Catholic Church's Gaza-based parish.
"We received no response from the Hamas," said Franco.
This week on Vatican Radio, the Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, condemned Israel, while Pope Benedict XVI said in his Sunday address that Israel's reprisals cannot be justified.
Cardinal Sodano said that "...a state's right to self-defense does not exempt it from respecting the norms of international law, especially as regards the protection of civilian populations. In particular, the Holy See deplores the attack on Lebanon, a free and sovereign nation, and gives assurances of its closeness to those people who have suffered so much in the defense of their own independence."
Pope Benedict XVI, in his Sunday address, said he was especially concerned "for the increasing military activities in Lebanon and for the many victims among the civilian population. At the root of such pitiless contrasts there are, unfortunately, objective... violations of rights and of justice. But neither terrorist acts nor reprisals, especially when they have such tragic consequences on the civilian population, can be justified."
On the day of the visit with Franco, who is the Vatican's senior diplomat to Israel, ADL's National Director Abraham L. Foxman issued a press release attacking the Vatican for what it called "its terribly one-sided and short-sighted response" to Israel's retaliatory attacks on Lebanon and Hizbullah.
Franco refused to comment on Sodano's and Benedict's statements.
During the ADL mission's meeting, one of the teachers asked Franco if he was concerned with the steady outflow of indigenous Christians from the Holy Land to the US and Europe.
Franco voiced his concern and blamed Israel's building of the security fence which, he said, "Separates families and places houses on one side and livelihood on the other."
He also said that Christians' minority status was a cause. He refrained from mentioning religious tension between Muslims and Christians.
In response to rumors that the pope was planning a trip to Israel in 2007, Franco said, "We have not even begun to plan a trip. But difficulties in the area might create an opportunity and not necessarily be an obstacle."
Franco rejected the possibility that the pope was postponing his visit because of Hamas's ascension to power in the Palestinian Authority.
"The Vatican wants to be sure that the pope's visit will take place at a time when it will make a significant impact on the area," said Franco.
Sources familiar with the Catholic Church's diplomacy have told the Post that as long as Hamas is in power, the pope cannot visit. A visit at this time would force him to either meet with Hamas, thus hurting relations with Israel, or refrain from meeting Hamas, which would pit the Vatican against the Muslim world.