Each year, Pope Benedict XVI gives a ‘state of the world’ address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See. During this year’s message, delivered last week at the Vatican, the Pope focused on the Middle East, calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and expressing his hope that upcoming elections in Israel and Iran will elect leaders who can usher in a new era of peace. Mordechay Lewy, Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See and a noted historian, sat down with Newsmax to discuss the Pontiff’s message, the Church’s historical pro-Palestinian leanings, and the current conflict in Gaza.
Newsmax: In his annual message to diplomats, Pope Benedict XVI said that military options are not a solution and that violence must be condemned. He also called for an immediate ceasefire. How much does Israel pay attention to these and other comments from the Pope?
Lewy: My point of departure is that [the Pope] said this in order to catch attention and indeed it caught attention. Such words have an impact on more than a billion believers. You don’t have to be Catholic to realize that. Secondly, we must understand the proper context. To me, he spoke mainly as a spiritual leader, someone who stands for peace and Christian compassion. If you take these two key words that are embracing his spiritual aims, it would be naïve not to expect he would have spoken like that. Added to that, there is a growing consensus, not among everyone but among the sane parts involved [in this conflict], who would like very much to work on a ceasefire. Now we should understand why he said what he said. I think definitely it is something one can easily endorse.
Newsmax: Yet some would argue that what he’s calling for goes against what the Israeli government has been doing, which has been to fight violence with violence.
Lewy: You must not confuse the spiritual level with the political level. This was not a political speech. You have to understand he called for the kind of norms that leaders who will be elected in Iran, in the Palestinian Authority, in Israel, should adopt in order to help re-ignite the peace process, tranquillity, co-existence – all those things you don’t see now. So it is not a prescription on how to vote. He [the Pope] is not voting. He’s not in the political process, and neither is the Church.
Newsmax: Do you sense some undertones within the Vatican that it considers the state of Israel to be temporary and that it won’t last?
Lewy: In the past, yes, of course. This is why I am so keen to stress the positive side because I know there have been tremendous changes. If you look at the Vatican position from the outset of the establishment of Israel as a state in 1948, there have been unbelievable changes, beyond the establishment of [diplomatic] relations. There is a change and in 60 years there has been a determinant line of improvement.
Newsmax: Do you think it’s strange that when Hamas was firing rockets at Israel there was little or no reporting about it by a lot of the Western press?
Lewy: Not everything is reported, that’s true, and if it’s reported, it’s sometimes biased or slandered. We have had a lot of cases in which Hamas has deliberately created a situation in which civilians will be hit. The last one was a school. We are in a very, very difficult situation if the other side doesn’t want a solution in terms of taking account the suffering of its own people, and has said that its goal is that Israeli civilians will suffer. In view of those complex considerations, maybe the Holy See is acting wisely. The Vatican is not extending blame or blows and therefore I think, in reference to Cardinal Martino [a Vatican prelate who recently compared Gaza to a “concentration camp”] the things he said were improper. He was rebuked by the Vatican.
Newsmax: This conflict has provoked a lot of emotions.
Lewy: Yes, indeed, and so the Holy Father is weighing every word he says.
Newsmax: A number of Church leaders have said that if politicians realized ordinary, innocent people were caught in the crossfire, they wouldn’t resort to violence. What is your view?
Lewy: A normal government feels responsible to its own citizens, which means it should improve the situation in terms of personal safety or economic prosperity. So you cannot blame the Israeli government for trying to defend itself. To try to defend means you have different ways, but it’s not too often repeated that Hamas resents the very essence of the existence of Israel.
Newsmax: Is Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to the Holy Land still going ahead as far as you know?
Lewy: There is no change. It hasn’t been officially confirmed so I have nothing to report about it. He is welcome, of course.
Newsmax: Many press reports say Vatican-Israeli relations have hit rock bottom because of other issues concerning Pius XII and the Good Friday prayer of the old rite of the Mass which calls for the conversion of Jews. Is this true in your view?
Lewy: No, these issues are not on the bilateral agenda at all. They are not a factor in diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel.
Newsmax: One bishop I spoke with recently, who is part of a delegation to the Holy Land, said one reason behind a pro-Palestinian approach among some in the Church is that Israel has failed to fulfil its obligations under the Fundamental Agreement [a bilateral treaty that established diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel in 1993]. Would you agree with that?
Lewy: It’s not a serious argument. If someone wants to be pro-Palestinian, he can find many reasons. When they look at our area they ask: Do we have Christian brothers there? It’s natural that Christians will have solidarity with their brothers in the Middle East. It’s not easy to be Christian in the Middle East. I am not saying Christians don’t have problems in Israel, but they should pray to God to thank Him they are under Israeli and not Muslim rule.
I can understand Catholics’ special affection for each other, but they should not seek to improve the personal security of their brothers in need by being anti-Israeli. This is not a life insurance policy. It is a notion which experience shows has failed. You’re not buying anything with it. The Muslims deeply resent Christians, so they are not impressed by such Christian anti-Israeli statements. That’s the experience in the Middle East.
Newsmax: Finally, as an historian and expert in religious history, how do you think religion could be used to bring peace rather than conflict to the Middle East?
Lewy: It could, but let me give you an example: no one will change a text in the Bible – neither Jew nor Christian. But it is a matter of interpretation, and religious texts can be interpreted. If you look for and find borders of the Holy Land which are applicable to the present day, you will be lost, because you will find a mini Israel, a maxi Israel, and it’s up to you how to interpret it…So what we have to do is make an additional effort to ensure that overwhelming interpretations [of religious texts] are peaceful ones, saying that that is how they were originally meant to be interpreted.
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