By Devin Watkins
“Painful reports are still emerging from northwestern Syria, particularly regarding the plight of so many women and children, as well as of people forced to flee because of a military escalation.”
Pope Francis expressed his concern for Syrians in Idlib province at the Angelus prayer on Sunday.
He also appealed to the international community and to all parties involved to “make use of diplomatic channels, dialogue, and negotiation” to end the conflict and “to safeguard the lives and welfare of civilians.”
The Pope then invited everyone to pray for "beloved and martyred Syria".
Thousands forced to flee
Syrian government forces, backed by Russia, are pressing an offensive to retake Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold in the country.
More than half a million people have been displaced from the area since early December 2019.
Some 90,000 civilians have fled their homes in Idlib province in the last 4 days alone, most of whom are making their way toward the Turkish border.
Letter to Syria’s president
The Pope’s latest appeal follows a slew of other initiatives he has launched since Syria’s civil war broke out in March 2011.
Most recently, he wrote a letter to President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, which was hand-delivered by Cardinal Peter Turkson in late June 2019.
In it, the Pope called for the protection of civilian life, an end to the humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib province, concrete initiatives for a safe return of displaced persons, the release of detainees and access for families to information regarding their loved ones, and humane conditions for political prisoners.
He also asked the Syrian president to restart peace talks and to dialogue with rebel leaders.
Imploring peace for Syria
The 2019 letter was preceded by a similar one sent in 2016, in which the Pope called for “a peaceful solution to the hostilities.”
Pope Francis had sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013, lamenting “one-sided interests” that hinder a solution to the “senseless massacre”.
He has brought up the Syrian civil war constantly in various Angelus addresses and messages.
A mere 18 days after his election to the papacy, Pope Francis implored peace for Syria in his first Easter Urbi et Orbi message.
“How much blood has been shed! And how much suffering must there still be before a political solution to the crisis will be found?” he asked.
Assisting Syrian refugees
During a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos in 2016 with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, Pope Francis reminded Syrian refugees there that “you are not alone.”
At the end of the visit, he brought three Syrian families back to Rome with him aboard the papal plane. They were later resettled in Italy.