ROME — As the Catholic Church marked the feast of the Assumption of Mary on Monday, Pope Francis remembered women who suffer “in body and spirit” because of the greed of men, while at the same time decrying the world’s “shameful silence” over some long-standing forgotten conflicts.
“We think, in particular, of the women overwhelmed by the weight of life and the drama of violence, the women enslaved by the arrogance of the powerful, the girls forced into inhuman work, the women forced to surrender in body and spirit to the greed of men,” Francis said.
The pope’s words came as he was addressing the thousands gathered in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square on Monday, feast of the Assumption of Mary, and a national holiday in Italy known as Ferragosto.
He spoke before and after leading the crowd in the traditional noontime Angelus prayer.
Diverting from his prepared remarks, Francis said that Mary, “a woman, a girl, who suffered so much in her life, makes us think of these women who suffer so much.”
Calling Mary “the Queen of Peace,” the pope said he wanted to entrust in her the “anxieties and the sorrows” of people who, around the world, are the “innocent victims of persistent conflicts” being perpetrated “in a shameful silence, without even attracting our attention.”
The pope’s words present an opportunity to remember some of those conflicts, and some of those women.
Nigeria and #BringBackOurGirls
Although they made big headlines when they were first abducted by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram in 2014, the 276 Nigerian girls, most of whom are still missing, have long vanished from the news cycle, despite embodying every one of Francis’ cries.
On Sunday, Boko Haram released a video showing some 50 of these schoolgirls, abducted in the northern town of Chibok. In the tape, a gunman demands the release of fighters in return for the girls.
Even if the Nigerian government does negotiate with these terrorists to free the more than 200 girls who haven’t been released or managed to escape, not all of them will come home: according to the video, some have died in airstrikes, others have been fatally wounded, and 40 have been “married.”
The few who have been able to escape have spoken about being forcibly converted to Islam — all of them were Christians — and about being sexually and physically abused.
Since 2011, Boko Haram has directly killed more than 15,000 people, and many more have been killed in the fight against the group.
The women of Syria and Iraq
As the death toll in these two countries continues to grow, with civil conflicts exacerbated by Islamic extremism, thousands, if not tens of thousands, of women and girls are being held against their will, used as sex-slaves and sold to finance the war.
A United Nations report released last June states that over 3,200 Yazidi women and children are still held by the Islamic State, with females being sexually enslaved and boys indoctrinated, trained and used in hostilities.
Thousands of Yazidi men and boys are also missing.
Mass graves of women between 40 and 80-years old have been found, with the authors of the report concluding they were deemed “too old” to be enslaved.
The report is filled with many testimonies, such as the one of a girl who was captured when she was 12, held for 7 months and sold four times: “We were registered. ISIS took our names, ages, where we came from and whether we were married or not. After that, ISIS fighters would come to select girls to go with them. The youngest girl I saw them take was about 9 years old. One girl told me that ‘if they try to take you, it is better that you kill yourself’.”
A report released in March produced by the Knights of Columbus and the human rights group In Defense of Christians presented to the U.S. Congress adds grueling details to the genocide against Christians and other religious minorities happening in Iraq and Syria. (Crux is a partner of the Knights of Columbus.)
The 280-page document includes a copy of a “price list” of “spoils of war”: A Yazidi or Christian woman aged 10 to 20 is sold for 150,000 dinars, roughly $130 US dollars, while Yazidi or Christian children of both sexes cost around $170.
A UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Bangura, confirmed the authenticity of the “price list,” saying that the slaves are first offered to ISIS leaders. Then they’re put up for sale to foreign buyers, often wealthy men from other Middle Eastern countries who pay thousands of dollars, and then offered to the fighters for these lower prizes.
The combined number of casualties from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the United Nations, produces a staggering total of more than 115,000 people killed in Syria and Iraq in the last 18 months.
Democratic Republic of Congo
The pontiff prayed for Congo on Monday, saying the eastern province of North Kivu has long been plagued by violence, “often spilling over from conflicts in neighboring countries.”
Over the weekend, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan Islamist militia that has operated in eastern Congo since the 1990s, killed at least 40 people in an attack.
“My thoughts go to the people of North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, recently hit by new massacres that for a long time have been perpetrated in a shameful silence, without even attracting our attention,” Francis said.
“These victims are some, unfortunately, of the many innocents who have no weight in the international opinion,” he added in improvised remarks.
In the last two years, over 400 people have been killed in what’s known as the “Kivu conflict.” The cumulative toll of this fight, however, is well above the 1.6 million people.
These are only three of the many active conflicts around the world that only rarely attract media attention. Others include the ongoing Afghan war, the Russian invasion in Ukraine and the ethnic cleansing in the Central African Republic.
In Venezuela, what Francis called the “arrogance of the powerful” is causing people to die for lack of flu medication, as the government of Nicolas Maduro refuses to acknowledge the country’s humanitarian crisis.
Hundreds of migrants and refugees die at sea every month as they try to reach Europe from Africa and the Middle East, and July 2016 was one of the bloodiest on record for terrorist incidents, with a body count reaching almost 2,000 innocent lives across the globe.
Francis offered this prayer on Monday: “May the beginning of a life of peace, of justice, of love, come for them soon, waiting for the day when they finally feel gripped by hands that do not humiliate them, but which with tenderness lead them through the path of life and raise them up to heaven.”