VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis Friday telephoned the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to voice his “serious concerns” over the worsening conflict in Gaza, urging them to seek an end to hostilities in Gaza.

He also reiterated the importance of prayer in bringing about peace.  

In a statement released Friday afternoon local time, the Vatican said the Holy Father “personally telephoned President Shimon Peres and President Mahmoud Abbas to share his very serious concerns regarding the current situation of conflict involving in particular the Gaza Strip.”

The Pope noted that the fighting is taking place “in a climate of growing hostility, hatred and suffering for the two populations,” and it is claiming “many victims and giving rise to a serious humanitarian emergency.”

Late Thursday night, Israel began a ground offensive in Gaza, sending thousands of troops into parts of the coastal strip, backed by tanks and artillery fire.

The decision was taken after 10 days of intensive rocket fire from Hamas militants and airstrikes by Israel. As of Friday morning, the death toll stood at 258, most of whom are Palestinian civilians, including women and children. 

To further the purpose of his recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land and the “Invocation for Peace in the Holy Land” on June 8, the Pope “assures his ceaseless prayer and that of all the Church for peace in the Holy Land.”

He also stated in his calls to both presidents the need to “continue to pray.” He said all those involved at all levels of authority should “work to bring an end to hostilities, making efforts to promote a truce, peace and reconciliation in the hearts of those involved.”

The telephone calls follow the Pope’s “heartfelt appeal” on Sunday for prayers for peace in the region, in which he called on God to “strengthen us in courage to take concrete actions to build peace.”

“Make us willing to listen to the cry of our citizens who are asking us to transform our weapons into instruments of peace, our fears into trust and our tensions into forgiveness,” he said.

Speaking to the Register Friday morning, a Vatican diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity said the Pope’s message on Sunday comes closest to reflecting the Holy See’s approach to the conflict.

He said the Vatican is “very worried” about the situation because the Israeli ground offensive is likely to intensify the conflict.

“It’s important to try to look for other ideas to promote peace, because if you use force, you won’t solve the problems,” he said. The official noted that “every two or three years” this happens in Gaza, and this, in itself, “shows it’s not the way to solve a problem.” 

When assessing whether either side is in any way just in its actions, the official stressed that the “whole context” of the conflict must be taken into account.

“This is not a kind of normal war; there is no proportion,” he said. “Also, you cannot just look at the number of victims: One side has one of the strongest armies in the world, and the other is a small group of anarchists.”

Those really suffering, he argued, are the civilians. “This is the problem,” he said. “It creates an atmosphere of hate and disappointment, and this isn’t good for peace, even though most of the people would like to have peace.”

Some are speculating that the Pope might hold another vigil for peace, similar to the one he called for the Syrian conflict, but there is no sign of this so far.

On Sunday, Pope Francis stressed that the “Invocation for Peace in the Holy Land” with Peres and Abbas was not in vain, “because prayer helps us not to allow ourselves to be overcome by evil, nor resign ourselves to violence and hatred taking over dialogue and reconciliation.”

The Vatican official said the gesture “had an effect, but other people are not interested in peace: Only when the atmosphere is good do they try to do the opposite.”

He reiterated the Pope’s insistence on continuing to pray for peace and not to lose hope. “Situations are difficult, but the alternative isn’t this one [use of force],” he said. “It’s a disaster for everyone.”

Although some left during Thursday’s five-hour truce, members of Gaza’s very small Catholic community are remaining in the territory. A group of Missionaries of Charity, who care for 28 disabled children and nine elderly women, are believed to still be in Gaza, along with the parish priest, Father Jorge Hernandez.

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem says the faithful are gathering in Gaza’s parish, the Church of the Holy Family, for permanent adoration to pray for forgiveness, justice and peace for all.

In comments to Fides news agency, Father Hernandez said Thursday that criminality was increasing, and young children were “beginning to get sick because of fear, stress, shock waves and the continuous noise.”

“Parents are doing everything they can to distract them by playing, jumping and dancing every time they hear an explosion,” he said.

The current conflict in Gaza was precipitated by the killing of three Israeli teenagers in June, the slaying of a Palestinian teen in retaliation and rockets launched against civilian areas in Israel by Hamas. Israel says the goal of “Operation Protective Edge” is to “establish a reality in which Israeli residents can live in safety and security without continuous indiscriminate terror, while striking a significant blow to Hamas’ terror infrastructure.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.