ROME – One of Pope Francis’s top aides delivered a personal letter from the pontiff to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, among other things expressing Francis’s “deep concern” for the humanitarian situation in Idlib, a rebel-controlled area in northwestern Syria that’s been the target of Russian-backed airstrikes since April.
A Vatican statement Monday indicated that Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who heads the Vatican’s department for Promoting Integral Human Development, met that morning in Damascus with Assad, accompanied by Italian Cardinal Mario Zenari, the pope’s ambassador in Syria.
The statement, issued by new papal spokesman Matteo Bruni, said that the letter “expresses the deep concern of His Holiness Pope Francis for the humanitarian situation in Syria, with particular reference to the dramatic consequences facing the civilian population in Idlib.”
Airstrikes in Idlib on Sunday alone left at least 17 civilians dead, including seven children, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The observatory warned that the death toll could rise significantly as bodies are cleared from rubble. One of the dead was a young Syrian citizen-journalist who was also a member of the “White Helmets” rescue group, so called for the white helmets that members wear when operating in danger zones.
Anas al-Dyab, a photographer and videographer in his early 20s, reportedly was killed in his hometown of Khan Sheikhun while trying to film Sunday’s air raids.
Overall, dozens of schools, rescue centers and hospitals have been destroyed in aerial bombings of the region, with more than 500 civilians believed to have been killed since April.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Francis in the Vatican on July 4, activists on social media employing the hashtag “#TellPutin” urged the pontiff to press the Russian leader to stop the bombings in Idlib. The campaign was backed by major human rights groups.
“With 3 million civilians at risk in Syria’s Idlib province, Pope Francis should #TellPutin when he sees him today to stop Russian-Syrian indiscriminate bombardment there, not to mention their systematic attacks on hospitals,” Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, said in a tweet.
In an interview also released by the Vatican Monday with the pope’s top aide, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State said the airstrikes in Idlib have made an already bad situation even worse.
“The recent military offensive has added to the extreme conditions of life that people endure in the [displaced person] camps, forcing many to flee,” Parolin said. “The pope is following the dramatic fate of the civilian population with apprehension and great pain, above all for the children caught up in these bloody bombings.”
According to a summary of the pope’s letter appended to the Parolin interview by Vatican Editorial Director Andrea Tornielli, the missive made several concrete requests of Assad:
- Security for displaced persons
- The release of displaced persons who’ve been detained
- Information for the families of displaced persons as to their location and conditions
- Humanitarian treatment of political prisoners
- A renewal of dialogue and negotiations with the involvement of the international community
Francis has made the situation in Syria a top political and diplomatic priority since his election in March 2013.
Shortly after taking office, he led a special liturgy of penance and prayer for Syria in St. Peter’s Square. He also wrote to G7 leaders to argue against a proposed Western military offensive aimed at dislodging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, which was credited by Russian leader Vladimir Putin with helping to halt the momentum towards a use of force.
Francis has also made the care of Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict a top priority, including bringing a dozen of those refugees back with him to Rome aboard the papal plane after an April 2016 day trip to the Greek island of Lesbos, which is a main point of arrival for migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The refugees were placed under the care of the Community of Sant’Egidio, one of the “new movements” in the Catholic Church with a special focus on conflict resolution.
Syria’s war is believed to have killed around 500,000 people and displaced millions since it erupted in 2011, with violence breaking out after a round of anti-Assad protests.
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