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Syrian refugees speak with an armed guard Syrian refugees speak with an armed guard 

Syria: From Pius IX to Francis, a land never forgotten

In the midst of daily suffering, Syria, a land long-tormented by the tragedy of war and violence, continues to seek the path of peace. Vatican News looks back at the care and concern the Popes have shown for the land and its people throughout the years.

By Amedeo Lomonaco

After ten years of conflict, Syria’s ongoing civil war has exacted a heavy toll: more than 400,000 victims, 12 million persons displaced, and 12.4 million people suffering from food insecurity. Amid such darkness, the light of authentic peace has yet to be found.

The way of peace

"Peace does not demand winners or losers, but rather brothers and sisters who, for all the misunderstandings and hurts of the past, are journeying from conflict to unity. Let us ask for this in praying for the whole Middle East. Here I think especially of neighbouring war-torn Syria." The way of peace is not possible without "sharing and acceptance." These are the words that sum up the greatest hope for Syria, expressed by Pope Francis on 6 March during the Inter-religious Meeting in the Plain of Ur, in Iraq, in the land of Abraham.

In the Press Conference two days later, on 8 March, during the return flight from Baghdad to Rome, Pope Francis recalled the suffering of the Syrian people. In particular, he thanked the generous countries, including Lebanon, that are receiving the migrants; and he recalled the prayer vigil for Syria on 7 September 2013. "I remember at the beginning of my pontificate that afternoon of prayer in St. Peter's Square, there was the rosary, the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. And how many Muslims with carpets on the ground were praying with us for peace in Syria, to stop the bombing, at that moment when it was said that there would be a fierce bombing. I carry Syria in my heart.”

Fraternity for Syria and the world

Dialogue and fraternity are the paths to take to eradicate the scourge of war. At the Angelus on 9 February 2020, the Pope recalled "this beloved and tormented Syria" and renewed a heartfelt appeal "to the international community and all those involved to use diplomatic means, dialogue and negotiation, in accordance with International Humanitarian Law, to safeguard the lives and future of civilians." Also in 2020, during his visit to Bari for the Meeting on the Mediterranean as a frontier of peace, the Pontiff launched a new appeal for Syria at the Angelus.

In 2019, Pope Francis recalled Syria's tragedy in his Address at the Founder's Memorial in Abu Dhabi. "Human fraternity,” he said on that occasion, " requires of us, as representatives of the world’s religions, the duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word ‘war.’ Let us return it to its miserable crudeness. Its fateful consequences are before our eyes. I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya. Together, as brothers and sisters in the one human family willed by God, let us commit ourselves against the logic of armed power, against the monetization of relations, the arming of borders, the raising of walls, the gagging of the poor."

Jesus in the faces of the children of Syria

One cannot remain indifferent before the suffering of the Syrian people, especially of Syrian children. In 2018, addressing participants at the Working Meeting on the Crisis in Syria and Neighbouring Countries, Pope Francis said, “For too many years the conflicts of bloodshed in that region, and the situation of peoples in Syria, Iraq and neighbouring countries, have continued to cause great concern.” He added, “Every day, in prayer, I bring before the Lord the suffering and needs of the Churches and the peoples of these beloved lands, as too the needs of those seeking to provide help.”

In his Urbi et Orbi Message for Christmas 2017, the Pope said: "We see Jesus in the faces of Syrian children still marked by the war that, in these years, has caused such bloodshed in that country.  May beloved Syria at last recover respect for the dignity of every person through a shared commitment to rebuild the fabric of society, without regard for ethnic and religious membership."

Surviving despite the bombs

For years, Syria has been torn apart by unspeakable suffering, caused by an evil that, above all, destroys consciences. "Today I want to speak to you about something that saddens my heart a lot: the war in Syria, now in its fifth year,” said Pope Francis at the beginning of a video message on the occasion of the Caritas Internationalis campaign for peace in Syria in 2016. "It is a situation of unspeakable suffering that the Syrian people are victims of, forced to survive under bombs or to find escape routes to other countries or areas of Syria that are less war-torn: to leave their own home, everything."

In 2015, receiving participants at the Meeting Organized by the Pontifical Council Cor Unum on the Humanitarian Crisis in the Middle East, Pope Francis noted that there are many victims of the conflict. “In Syria and Iraq, evil destroys buildings and infrastructures, but especially the conscience of man.”

Syria and the so-called Islamic State

In 2014, another dramatic page marked by unspeakable violence opened in Syria and Iraq with the creation of the so-called Islamic State. On 29 June 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed from the mosque of al Nuri, in Mosul, the birth of a caliphate in a territory that included north-eastern Syria and the western region of Iraq. The city of Raqqa in north eastern Syria was declared its capital.

A month before the birth of the so-called Islamic State, the situation was already explosive. Clashes and fighting had been raging for some time in large areas of the Middle East. On 30 May 2014, the Pope addressed a Message to Charity Workers in Syria: "I ask that all parties involved, looking to the common good, immediately permit humanitarian aid and as soon as possible silence the weapons and engage in negotiation, placing first the good of Syria, all of her inhabitants, and those who unfortunately have had to flee elsewhere and who have the right to return promptly to their homeland. I am thinking in particular of the beloved Christian communities, which are the face of a suffering and hopeful Church."

How much more suffering must be endured?

Reconciliation is the gift Pope Francis has always asked for the Syrian people. In 2013, a few days after his election as Pope, in his Urbi et Orbi Message for Easter, Pope Francis called for peace "for dear Syria, for its people torn by conflict and for the many refugees who await help and comfort.”

“How much blood has been shed!” he exclaimed. “And how much suffering must there still be before a political solution to the crisis will be found?”

It is a question that can be connected with the numerous appeals launched by Pope Francis for Syria, such as the one at the Angelus on 25 August 2013: "The increasing violence in a war between brothers and sisters with the escalation of massacres and acts of atrocity that we have all been able to see in the appalling images of the past few days impels me once again to raise my voice so that the clash of weapons may be silenced. It is not conflict that offers prospects of hope for solving problems, but rather the capacity for encounter and dialogue.”

Why so much horror? Benedict XVI on violence in Syria

Earlier, Pope Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI implored the gift of peace for the people of Syria and neighbouring countries. “Sadly, the din of weapons continues to make itself heard, along with the cry of the widow and the orphan,” he said in Beirut during his Apostolic Journey to Lebanon. Speaking at the Angelus on the final day of his visit to the Land of the Cedars, Benedict asked, “Why so much horror? Why so many dead?” He followed up these questions with an appeal to the international community.

"Those who wish to build peace must cease to see in the other an evil to be eliminated," he insisted. Benedict prayed, "May God grant to your country, to Syria and to the Middle East the gift of peaceful hearts, the silencing of weapons and the cessation of all violence!"

John Paul II and the prayer from the Golan Heights

The wounds in Syria's history were also recalled on several occasions by St John Paul II. In particular, during the Jubilee pilgrimage to Greece, Syria and Malta, Pope John Paul prayed at the Golan Heights, in the church in Quneitra, which had been half destroyed by the war. “From this place, so disfigured by war,” the Pope said, “I wish to raise my heart and voice in prayer for peace in the Holy Land and in the whole world. The history of the city of Quneitra is connected to the "Six-Day War." It was almost completely destroyed before the Israeli withdrawal in June 1974.

Paul VI: from hate to brotherhood

“Let feelings of envious rivalry and hatred be transformed into a feeling of forgiveness and fraternity”: this was the hope expressed by St Paul VI in his Urbi et Orbi Message for Easter 1968. The Pontiff's words also refer to the difficult context of the Middle East. “The world, in its constructive system of world harmony, has had a frightful shock from the recent conflicts in the Far East and in the Middle East, as well as in the land of Africa,” Pope Paul said. “May the great ideals of the orderly and peaceful organisation of the world rise again; may scepticism concerning the constitutional ineptitude of humanity to progress in freedom, justice and peace not triumph; but may hope be confirmed and, with hope, action be taken to resolve present conflicts and prevent future ones.”

Pius IX and “the afflicted faithful of Syria”

The tragedy of war and violence is not a new factor in Syria’s history. In the 19th century, shortly before Christmas 1860, Blessed Pope Pius IX, in his allocution Multis gravibusque, recalled "the afflicted faithful of Syria": “We are distressed and moved," the Pontiff said, "by the wretched state of Christians in Syria." Although there had been some respite "from the suffering of a cruel massacre," violence had risen once again with "robberies and massacres".

Pope Pius’ words referred to the bloody conflict that broke out in that region in the summer of 1860, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Christians. Even after 1860, Syria's history is marked by other dramatic moments. The future, for this tormented country, is a path to be travelled between anxiety and hope, a path that must be taken with a commitment to live in fraternity and peace – and not only for Syria.

15 March 2021, 14:15