Pope Francis appeals for peace with Shimon Peres, Mahmoud Abbas

Josephine McKenna

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As Israel continued its ground offensive into the Gaza Strip, Pope Francis urged Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to end the spiraling conflict.

The pontiff telephoned the two leaders Friday to express "his very serious concerns" only six weeks after both joined him at the Vatican for a historic prayer meeting.

Francis said he was concerned about the "climate of growing hostility, hatred and suffering" that was claiming many victims, resulting in "a serious humanitarian emergency," the Vatican said in a statement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who did not attend the Vatican prayer meeting in June, has said he is prepared to "significantly widen" Israel's action against militants in the Gaza Strip.

Thousands of troops moved into areas of Gaza on Thursday night, backed by tanks and artillery fire, while Hamas, the Palestinian organization that controls Gaza, has warned Israel will "pay a high price" for the invasion.

At the end of the joint prayer service with Peres and Abbas in June, Francis urged the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to act with courage and seek peace in the Middle East.

Given the rapidly degenerating situation in Gaza, the pope's plea now seems like a very dim prospect.

The Vatican said the pope considers the two men to be "men of peace" and Francis reminded the two leaders of the need for both sides and those who hold political office to work to end the hostilities and promote peace.

The pope also sent a personal message to 200 Catholic missionaries working in Gaza to express his support and tell them he was praying for them, according to the Italian daily La Stampa.

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