A day after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Pope Francis has appealed “to all people of good will to join together in unanimous condemnation of these cruel atrocities that are only causing death, terror and horror.” And he has called on believers worldwide “to pray with perseverance to the Lord to convert the hearts of these persons [who are] blinded by cruel fundamentalism.”
He issued his heartfelt appeal before 10,000 pilgrims, from many countries, attending his public audience in St. Peter’s Square on March 23. He invited them to join him in praying for this cause and for all who have suffered in these terrible attacks in the capital of this small country of some 11 million people.
“With pain in my heart, I followed the sad news of the terrorist attacks that took place in Brussels yesterday, which caused many victims and injuries,” he said. He was referring to the 31 people killed and some 230 injured in attacks at the airport and at a subway station in this city of 175,000 people.
He “assured” the families of the dead and those injured, as well as “the dear Belgian people” of “my prayer and my closeness” at this time.
After appealing to “all people of goodwill” to unite in “unanimous condemnation” of these atrocities— he called them ‘abominations’—Francis urged everyone “to persevere in prayer and to ask the Lord this Holy Week, through the intercession of Mary, to comfort the hearts of the afflicted and to convert the hearts of these persons blinded by a cruel fundamentalism.”
He then led the pilgrims in reciting the Hail Mary for this purpose and afterwards called on them to pray in silence “for the dead, for the wounded, for their relatives and for the whole Belgian people.” He concluded with these words: “May the Lord bless you all and protect you from the evil one!”
Yesterday, within hours of the terrorist attacks on Tuesday morning, March 22, Francis issued his first condemnation of the bombings. He did so in a telegram to the new archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, Jozef De Kesel, in which he entrusted “to God’s mercy” all who died in the attacks, and he sent his condolences to their relatives. He asked God "to comfort and console" both the relatives of the victims as well as the many injured and to bless all those providing them with assistance. He condemned “the blind violence which causes so much suffering” and implored God for “the gift of peace.”
This is the third terrorist attack in Europe in just over a year, and it has hit at the heart of Europe, where key institutions of the European Union are based. The first struck Charlie Hebdo, a satirical paper, on Jan. 7, 2015, killing 17 people. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility. The second came on Nov. 13, 2015, killing 130 people at a stadium and other places in Paris. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for this, as they did for yesterday’s attacks in the Belgian capital. Europe has suffered two other major terrorist attacks, over 15 years ago: Al-Qaeda hit Madrid on March 11, 2004, killing 191 people, and then London on July 7, 2005, leaving 56 dead.
This latest wave of attacks has sent shockwaves of fear across the old continent and especially through the countries of the European Union. The attacks come at a time when Europe, and especially the Union, finds itself greatly divided as it seeks to respond to the ever-increasing migrant and refugee crisis on its southern shores.
The fear is palpable in Italy and especially in Rome, where the government has ordered the military to take up key positions across the city. The Islamic State has let it be known that it considers the Vatican a prize target and so, as we enter Holy Week, the entire area around the Vatican City State has been turned into a militarized zone, with security checkpoints at all entrances to St. Peter’s Square and Basilica. The Vatican and Italian security forces are making every effort to prevent the possibility of an attack here, and ensure that pilgrims and Romans can participate in the papal ceremonies.