Pope Francis has written to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in a plea to end the country’s “humanitarian catastrophe” and protect his country’s weak and defenceless civil population.
The letter comes after the latest round of airstrikes in Idlib Province on Sunday 21 July. It was hand delivered by Cardinal Peter Turkson, one of the pope’s closest advisors, during a meeting with the president in Damascus on Monday 22 July.
Vatican News outlined the priorities mentioned in the pope’s letter: “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.”
Close advisor, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, outlined the purpose of the letter. “At the heart of this new initiative lies Pope Francis’ concern for the emergency humanitarian situation in Syria, in particular in Idlib Province,” he said.
Idlib is the last rebel-held region in Syria and remains under the control of Islamist militants. Russian-backed airstrikes have targeted the region since April 2019, resulting in the death of more than 2,000 people.
On July 21, Government air raids in Idlib killed 17 civilians, including seven children in other parts of the region, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
“Pope Francis renews his appeal for the protection of civilian life and the preservation of the main infrastructures, such as schools, hospitals, and health facilities. What is happening is intolerable and inhuman,” Cardinal Parolin said.
He also emphasised the importance of reconciliation in the letter. “In his letter, the Holy Father uses the word ‘reconciliation’ three times: this is his objective, for the good of that country and its defenseless population.”
Around 500,000 people have been killed in Syria and millions displaced since the war started in 2011, with violence breaking out after a round of anti-Assad protests.
The crisis in Syria has been a top priority for Pope Francis since his election in March 2013. He previously wrote to President al-Assad in December 2016 in a plea for peace and aid corridors.
In April 2016, after a visit to Greek Island Lesbos, he flew a dozen Syrian refugees back to live in Rome, where they were cared for by the Community of Sant’Egidio.
Cardinal Parolin said the letter included an appeal for renewed dialogue and negotiations with the international community. “The Holy See has always insisted on the need to seek an appropriate political solution to end the conflict,” he said.
“In the letter sent to President Assad, the Holy Father encourages him to show good will and to work towards finding viable solutions, putting an end to a conflict which has lasted far too long and which has led to the loss of numerous innocent lives”.
Picture: A man walks with his bicycle at a damaged site in Damascus, Syria, March 30 2018. (CNS photo/Bassam Khabieh, Reuters)