Vatican City. Pope Francis on Wednesday met separately with Israeli relatives of Hamas hostages and Palestinians with family in Gaza, while warning the ongoing conflict could result in "a mountain of dead".
At the end of his weekly audience at the Vatican, the 86-year-old pontiff called for prayers for peace, saying of both groups: "They suffer so much and I heard how they both suffer."
"Wars do this, but here we have gone beyond wars. This is not war, this is terrorism," he added, without specifying whether he was referring to the October 7 attack on Israel by Palestinian militant group Hamas or Israel's military operation in Gaza launched in response, or both.
The Vatican said last week the pope hoped to show his "spiritual closeness" during the private meetings, which it said would be "exclusively humanitarian in nature".
Each delegation told press conferences in Rome following the meetings that they believed Francis could use his moral influence to help them.
Hamas gunmen carried out on October 7 a cross-border attack, the worst in Israel's history, that left around 1,200 people dead, most of them civilians, according to the Israeli government.
Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups also took an estimated 240 Israelis and foreigners hostage, among them elderly people and young children.
In retaliation, Israel launched a major bombing campaign and ground offensive in Gaza, which the Hamas government said has killed 14,100 people, mostly civilians and thousands of them children.
"Let us pray that the difficulties resolve themselves in dialogue and negotiation and not with a mountain of dead on each side," Francis said in a video message released Wednesday.
Rachel Goldberg, whose 23-year-old son Hersh Goldberg-Polin was kidnapped by Hamas, told journalists the pope "has a lot of influence".
"He's very respected in the Muslim world, in the Jewish world, really irrespective of religious background. So I think that when he speaks the world really listens."
Palestinian Yousef Lalkhoury said the pope was capable of asking for a "just peace" for his people.
"We have urged him to visit Gaza because we believe he can stop the war," Lalkhoury said.
Short of freeing all the hostages, the Israeli delegation said it hoped Francis could push for the Red Cross to be allowed access to them.
Israel and Hamas announced a deal on Wednesday allowing at least 50 hostages and scores of Palestinian prisoners to be freed, while offering besieged Gaza residents a four-day truce after weeks of all-out war.
"I'm not counting hostages being freed in this deal until I see them walk over the border and see them embraced safely," said Goldberg, who was among 12 families of hostages represented in the meeting with the pope.
Muhamed Halalo, an IT manager from Gaza who lives in Belgium, was one of 10 Muslim and Christian Palestinians who met with Francis.
"I have a broken heart, my eyes full of tears," he said as he described how his entire extended family had been wiped out in a strike that killed 30 people.
Israeli Adav Kipnis said his parents were murdered during the October 7 attack and seven of his family members were kidnapped.
"We don't know if those captured are alive, if they are injured... Give us information if they are even alive and being taken care of," he said.
The Palestinians present claimed the pope used the word "genocide" during their meeting to describe what was happening in Gaza.
"I am not aware of him using that word," Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told AFP, adding that he had been present at the meeting.
The pope "used the terms he used to express himself during the weekly audience and words that in any case represent the terrible situation in Gaza", Bruni said.
The pope has never described it as genocide in public.
"He spoke to us about what he already knew about Gaza, and he's the one who described what’s happened as a genocide", Shireen Hilal from Bethlehem insisted.
"He said that terror cannot or should not justify terror".