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Pope remembers Holy Land Catholics, meets fathers bereaved by war

Handout photo from the Vatican showing Pope Francis meeting with Palestinian Bassam Aramin and Israeli Rami Elhanan, who both lost their daughters to violence in the Middle East
— Vatican City (AFP)

Pope Francis offered his solidarity Wednesday to Catholics in Israel and the Palestinian territories ahead of Easter, after meeting Jewish and Muslim bereaved fathers campaigning for peace.

"You are not alone," the 87-year-old pontiff wrote in a letter ahead of the holiest weekend in the Christian calendar, when believers mark the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as the Hamas-Israel war continues to rage.

"I embrace all of you, in the variety of your rites... (particularly) those most affected by the senseless tragedy of war -- the children robbed of their future, those who grieve and are in pain, and all who find themselves prey to anguish and dismay.

"In these bleak times... you are lamps shining in the night," he said, adding that "soon we hope to return among you as pilgrims, to draw near to you, to embrace you".

Earlier Wednesday, before his weekly audience at the Vatican, the pontiff met with two fathers of children killed during past violence in the region, who are now campaigning together for peace.

Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian from Jericho in the West Bank, saw his 10-year-old daughter Abir die outside her school after she was shot by an Israeli soldier in 2007.

Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, lost his teenage daughter Smadar in a Hamas suicide attack in Jerusalem in 1997.

The two fathers "do not look at the enmity of war", Francis said at the audience.

Instead, they believe in "the friendship of two men who care about each other and have experienced the same crucifixion".

Speaking to reporters after meeting the pope, Elhanan said Francis had been "deeply touched" by their story of campaigning for peace together.

He said the pontiff noted that he was Christian, Elhanan was Jewish and Aramin was Muslim, but emphasised "we are all humans. And we can be brothers instead of going and killing each other".

The most recent conflict broke out when Hamas launched its unprecedented October 7 attack that resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures, and the taking of about 250 hostages.

Israel responded with a campaign against Gaza that has killed more than 32,000 people, most of them women and children, according to the health ministry.