Pope Francis today made an impassioned appeal for “an immediate end to the violence” in Syria where he said “the war has re-exploded” especially in eastern Ghouta. He asked that access be given to “humanitarian aid—food and medicines” and that “the wounded and the sick be evacuated” in that zone.
Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, is one of few enclaves still in the hands of the rebel forces that oppose President Bassar al-Assad, and in recent weeks it has come under heavy bombing and attacks from the Syrian government forces. These forces, aided by Russian fighter jets, have caused the deaths of an estimated 520 civilians, including 123 children, in the last seven days. The humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières has called for a cease fire to allow assistance to be given to the at least 2,500 persons that have been wounded.
“In these days, my thoughts are often turned to the beloved and martyred Syria,” the pope said on Sunday, February 25, as news of further atrocities and of the plight of those trapped under the bombs in these and other zones reached the Vatican. Among the recent victims was a member of the Jesuit Refugee Service who was injured in a bomb blast in Damascus on Feb. 19
“This month of February has been one of the most violent months in the seven years of conflict,” Francis said, referring to a war in which according to the United Nations and other sources say some 500,000 Syrians have been killed since the conflict began in 2011. In this country of around 18 million people, that is about 1,000 people per week. By March 2017, more than 5 million Syrians have fled the country and over 6 million are internally displaced, because of a conflict that pits rebel forces, Kurdish forces, the Islamic State and other groups against the forces of the Assad regime that is being helped by the Russians, Iran, and others, and which has seen the involvement of Turkey, the United States, the European Union, China and Israel.
Referring to the month of February, Francis said there have been “hundreds, thousands of civilian victims—children, women and old people” and, furthermore “hospitals have been hit” and “the people cannot get something to eat.”
“All this is inhuman!” he stated in a strong voice. “One cannot fight evil with another evil.... I therefore make a heartfelt appeal that the violence ceases immediately, that access be given to humanitarian aid—food and medicines—and that the wounded and the sick be evacuated,” he said.
He prayed “that this can happen without further delay” and asked the thousands of pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square to join him in reciting the “Ave Maria” for this purpose.
His appeal came in the wake of a unanimous agreement reached yesterday at the United Nations in New York, after three days of frustrating negotiations, that envisages a truce throughout Syria, including in the rebel-held district of eastern Ghouta. But the accord gave no date for the start of the truce.
Pope Francis, along with his predecessor, Benedict XVI, and the Holy See, have long pressed for an end to the war that seems to have disappeared from the radar of international attention. But Francis is determined to keep the international spotlight on it and so, last Friday, he included Syria in the day of fast and prayer for peace which originally was meant to focus on South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said recently in reference to the seven-year conflict in Syria, “The conduct and management of this war has been utterly shameful from the outset, and the failure to end it marks an epic failure of global diplomacy.”