WASHINGTON (RNS) — Catholic activists hosted a “pray-in” protest outside the White House on Thursday (Nov. 2), calling on President Joe Biden to advocate for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip as Israel continues its advance into the region in the wake of a Hamas attack.
Huddled in a circle near the White House fence, the dozens of protesters condemned the assault into Israel by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7, which left more than 1,400 Israelis dead and more than 200 taken hostage. But the Catholic demonstrators focused their frustration on the subsequent retaliation on the Gaza Strip by Israeli forces that has killed more than 9,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
The protesters noted that the violence wrought by the Israeli advance has spurred calls for a cease-fire across the globe — including from Pope Francis — but that President Joe Biden, who is Catholic, has yet to express support for the idea.
“President Biden and Pope Francis are not on the same page,” said Eli McCarthy of the Franciscan Action Network.
Demonstrators sang, chanted “cease-fire now!” and prayed the rosary. One of the speakers also read a prayer meant to illuminate the human cost of the ongoing violence in Gaza.
“Let us burn incense, not children. Let us break bread, not bodies. Let us plant olive groves, not cemeteries,” she said.
At one point, demonstrators paused to announced that Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and a Catholic, had voiced support for a cease-fire earlier that morning — making him the first senator to do so. The announcement sparked applause.
Durbin later distanced himself from “cease-fire” in a conversation with The Associated Press, explaining that he preferred the term “humanitarian pause” but acknowledging that “the notion is the same: to interrupt the hostilities and bring peace to the situation.”
The distinction matters to White House officials, who told The New York Times on Thursday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would push the Israeli government to allow for short pauses of their military operations in Gaza to allow for the distribution of humanitarian aid and time for hostages to be released.
Asked about Biden’s proposal after the protest, Jean Stokan, justice coordinator for Sisters of Mercy, called it a “minimalist” approach.
“It should be a cease-fire, and it should be permanent,” she said, arguing that only a full cease-fire allows for a diplomatic solution to emerge.
“The security of Israel is intimately tied to the justice for Palestinians,” she said.
Michele Dunne, head of the Franciscan Action Network, expressed support for any cessation of hostilities — “We feel what’s happening is retribution, not accountability,” she said of Israel’s ground assault — but stressed the need for a full cease-fire.
“We came here today to deliver a message to President Biden, that we expect him as our president, as a Christian and, in fact, as a fellow Catholic to be playing a role in the world for peace,” Dunne said. She added that she believes the U.S. is “locked into a cycle of violence and retribution,” and she called on Biden to “play a role of stopping that violence, not perpetuating it.”
Speakers also called for the release of hostages taken by Hamas during the initial Oct. 7 attack, only a handful of whom have been returned to their families thus far.
The protest was organized or sponsored by several Catholic groups, including the Catholic Advisory Council of Churches for Middle East Peace, Franciscan Action Network, Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, Pax Christi USA, Quixote Center, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Justice Team, the Isaiah Project, the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker and the Assisi Community.
The effort joins a growing wave of faith-led demonstrations in support of a cease-fire. Last month, thousands of demonstrators organized by two Jewish activist groups protested outside the White House, inside the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill and in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, resulting in hundreds of arrests. Biden was also interrupted while speaking in Minnesota on Wednesday evening by a rabbi who implored him to advocate for a cease-fire, and Muslim leaders have told the president he risks losing Muslim American votes in states such as Michigan if he doesn’t embrace the idea of a cease-fire.
In addition, demonstrators holding a sign that read “NC Jews say ceasefire now!” blocked traffic in Durham, North Carolina, Thursday afternoon, with hundreds more protesters supporting them from a nearby overpass. By Thursday evening, yet another similar ceasefire protest had broken out at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Pope Francis and Vatican officials, in addition to calling for a cease-fire, have reiterated calls for a two-state solution and mobilized Vatican diplomats to quell what the pontiff believes is a “piecemeal” third world war that has already begun, citing violence in Gaza as well as the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.