Pope promises to help bring Israeli captives of Hamas home

Leah Goldin, mother of Lt. Hadar Goldin, whose body has been held by Hamas for over eight years, called the meeting “a breakthrough.”

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

In a meeting in the Vatican Wednesday morning with the families of Israelis being held by Hamas, Pope Francis vowed to work for their release through both official and non-official channels.

“The Pope promised to work with governments and religious leaders, including Muslim leaders, to bring back the sons,” said a statement by the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

The Gaza-based terror organization is holding the bodies of two soldiers killed in 2014’s Operation Cast Lead, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, as well as two live prisoners, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, two men with mental health issues who crossed over the border in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Just last week, Hamas attempted to turn up the pressure for a prisoner swap, presenting Goldin’s rifle at a Gaza rally marking the organization’s 35th anniversary.

“We are giving the occupation a limited period of time to complete a prisoner deal,” Hamas head Yahya Sinwar announced to the cheering crowd.

Although Mengistu and al-Sayed had never served in the IDF, Sinwar added, “Otherwise, we will close the file of the four soldiers forever.”

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The pontiff took the time to speak to every family member during the 45-minute visit, and he was especially empathetic to the victims’ mothers, saying, “It is so difficult to comfort a mother’s tears,” according to the Israeli embassy to the Vatican.

The mother of Lt. Hadar Goldin, Leah, was interviewed after the visit on Radio 103FM and called it “a meeting we had dreamed of,” since “all Israeli politicians and decision-makers” have disappointed the families by “serving their own interests” and refusing to obey the law “that forbids giving anything to Gaza without demanding the return of our sons.”

The families decided that they needed to use “indirect levers” instead, which included “go[ing] for the cleanest thing, called the religious plane,” she said. “And on the religious level, the duty of the mother to bury her son is indisputable.”

Calling the pontiff a “dear man” who was “full of understanding,” she was heartened by the Pope’s response.

Quoting his words that he “would work through all his religious channels, in all religions to spread the word, and help,” she labelled it “a breakthrough” that would “bring about change because it’s impossible to ignore him.”

In contrast, when asked by interviewer Ben Caspit if she had words of praise for Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who announced that Israel would keep the body of Nasser Abu Hamid, cofounder of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade terror group who died of cancer on Tuesday, as a chip to play in a possible prisoner deal, Goldin answered “no.”

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“I do not approve of anything related to Benny Gantz, the current Minister of Defense, who was the Chief of Staff who sent my son to Gaza and has done nothing for eight years and four months,” she said. Moreover, he is the one “who has allowed 20,000 workers from Gaza to come in [to Israel] without demanding my son back. It’s political nonsense; I’m tired of [it].”

Ambassador Rafi Schotz, who requested the visitation in October, accompanied the families during their meeting, as did Shuli Davidovich, the Foreign Ministry’s head of the Bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions.

The family members also met with Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister, and other top Italian officials, as well as the heads of the Italian Jewish community.