By Benedetta Capelli
Innocent blood shed; children caught in cruel bombings; witnesses to the faith who have been kidnapped or killed, but who have never retreated before the Cross. These are just a few of the images that Pope Francis, over the past six years, has offered the world to ensure that the to ensure that the world does not turn its eyes away from the inhuman war in Syria. The Holy Father has been a voice of hope, of peace, of the commitment to not shy from the difficulties of dialogue, nor hide the great risk of seeing the war transformed into a “brutal persecution” of religious minorities. The Pope has often shown special concern for the plight of refugees and those fleeing from war and violence, “which only creates new wounds, creates further violence.”
Close to the Syrian people
The Pope has launched numerous appeals during his Angelus and Regina Coeli addresses. Syria is a recurring theme in his Urbi et Orbi messages; and often, too, in his weekly General Audiences, especially when fresh violence breaks out. Pope Francis repeats the cry for peace when he speaks with world leaders, as when, in a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, he called for a renewed commitment to seek “a peaceful solution through dialogue and negotiation of the parties, unanimously supported by the international community.” In a 2016 letter to Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, the Pope called for “a peaceful solution to hostilities,” the protection of civilians, and access to humanitarian aid. At the same time, he condemned “all forms of extremism and terrorism, no matter where they come from.”
The caress of the Church
Together with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, Pope Francis visited refugees and displaced persons on the Greek island of Lesbos in 2016. “I want to tell you that you are not alone,” the Pope told them. When he returned to Rome at the end of that visit, he brought with him three Syrian families, who were then resettled in Italy. It was an action that spoke louder than words, a gesture that showed the love of the Church for the weak, the caress of Jesus for those today who are in need.
Three years later, to express once again his closeness to migrants on Lesbos, Pope Francis the Pope sent Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the Papal Almoner, with a donation of 100,000 euros.
And on Good Friday 2019, during the Via Crucis at the Colosseum, two Syrian families carried the Cross at the Twelfth Station. The hands that bore the Cross were a vivid reminder of the Pope’s Letter to Middle Eastern Christians in 2014, where he prayed that they might “always bear witness to Jesus amid your difficulties.”
A day of prayer and fasting for peace
Just 18 days after his election, Pope Francis, in his Easter Urbi et Orbi message, implored peace for “dear Syria, for its people torn by conflict, and for the many refugees who await help and comfort.” It’s a plea he has repeated often through the years, as he calls for “courage” and “decision” in embarking on the path of negotiation.
Prayer gives us strength in times of sorrow and strife, and it was for this reason that Pope Francis called for a Day of Prayer and Fasting for Peace in Syria, in the Middle East, and in the whole world. “Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace!” he said, when he announced the initiative during his Angelus address on 1 September 2013.
Assistance for those who suffer
Throughout the years, and especially on the occasion of international summits on Syria, Pope Francis has expressed his concern that humanitarian law be respected. In particular, he has repeatedly called for guarantees for the evacuation of civilians; and he has praised countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey for welcoming refugees. On Lesbos, in 2016, the Pope, together with Patriarch Bartholomew, and the Orthodox Archbishop of Athens, Ieronymos II, signed a Joint Declaration pleading for an end to the war, and for greater efforts to care for those who have been forced to flee their homes. “We urge all countries,” they said, “to extend temporary asylum, to offer refugee status to those who are eligible, to expand their relief efforts and to work with all men and women of good will for a prompt end to the conflicts in course.”
Suffering that cries out to God
In the face of kidnappings of Christians and Muslims, including Bishops and religious, Pope Francis calls for the silencing of weapons of war; and, in his Letter to Middle Eastern Christians, speaks about the atrocities carried out by the so-called Islamic State group.
“Sadly, afflictions and tribulations have not been lacking, even more recently, in the Middle East," he said. "They have been aggravated in the past months because of the continuing hostilities in the region, but especially because of the work of a newer and disturbing terrorist organization, of previously unimaginable dimensions, which has perpetrated all kinds of abuses and inhuman acts. It has particularly affected a number of you, who have been brutally driven out of your native lands, where Christians have been present since apostolic times.”
Religious fundamentalism, the Pope explained in January 2015, “even before it eliminates human beings by perpetrating horrendous killings, eliminates God himself, turning him into a mere ideological pretext.”
Children: the hope for peace
There is always a particular place for children Pope Francis’ thoughts. They are the primary victims of war, who “cannot see the light of the future!” Strongly condemning the use of chemical weapons, and arms traffickers “who continue to pursue their own interests, Pope Francis said that violence only leads to more violence.
On the occasion of the International Day of Children in 2016, Pope Francis invited children from around the world to join with Syrian children in praying for peace. And in 2018, on the First Sunday of Advent, he lit a candle for “the little ones” who live in warzones, that they might not lose hope.
Peace, as Pope Francis has often repeated, ultimately “begins in the heart.”