A messy dispute broke out on Wednesday over whether Pope Francis used the word “genocide” to describe events in Gaza, with Palestinians who met with him insisting that he did and the Vatican saying he did not.
The opposing versions emerged at an afternoon press conference with 10 Palestinians who met the pope on Wednesday morning at his Vatican residence. That meeting followed a separate one with Israeli relatives of hostages in Gaza.
“When we shared the stories of the families that have been killed (in Gaza), he mentioned, ‘I see the genocide’,” said Shireen Awwad Hilal, who teaches at Bethlehem Bible College.
“It was very clear; the word genocide did not come from us. It came from His Holiness, Pope Francis,” she said.
But a statement sent by Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni, in response to a question texted by a reporter, said the opposite.
“I am not aware that he (the pope) used such a word. He used terms that he expressed during the general audience and words that, in any case, represent the terrible situation that is being lived out in Gaza,” Bruni’s statement said.
Other participants at the Palestinian news conference concurred that they had heard the pope use the word genocide.
“We were all there. We heard it, and no one has a hearing problem,” Hilal said when pressed by reporters.
The participants said the pope was very informed about the situation in Gaza and the lack of water, medicine, and basic necessities.
“Terror Should Not Justify Terror”
Israel has placed Gaza under siege and relentless bombardment since Hamas militants attacked southern Israeli towns on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking around 240 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.
Since then, more than 14,000 Gazans have been killed, about 40% of them children, according to medical officials in the Hamas-ruled territory, figures deemed reliable by the United Nations.
The Palestinians at their news conference said the pope condemned Hamas’ action as terror, with more than one quoting the pope during the meeting as saying “terror should not justify terror”.
Earlier on Wednesday, in unscripted words to his general audience, Francis said the conflict had gone beyond war.
“This is what wars do. But here, we have gone beyond wars. This is not a war. This is terrorism,” he said.
He asked for prayers so that both sides would “not go ahead with passions, which, in the end, kill everyone”.
Israel’s Ambassador to the Vatican, Raphael Schutz, said he did not want to refer directly to what the pope had said but added: “There is a simple distinction; one side is murdering or raping and does not care about those on their own side. The other side is engaged in a war of self-defence.”
Schutz was speaking at a news conference with Israeli families who had met the pope. Most said they were not aware of the pope’s comments because they happened after the meeting.
During the general audience, a group of Palestinians in the crowd held up pictures of bodies wrapped in white cloth and a placard saying “the Nakba continues”.
Nakba is the Arab word for catastrophe and refers to the displacement and dispossession of Palestinians in the 1948 war that surrounded Israel’s founding.
The meetings and the pope’s comments came hours after Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire in Gaza for at least four days to allow in aid and release at least 50 hostages captured by militants in exchange for at least 150 Palestinians jailed in Israel.