ROME – From the beginning, it was inevitable that history’s first pontiff named “Francis,” for the great 12th and 13th century apostle of peace, would see himself as a “peace pope.” On Monday, Pope Francis signaled the press for peace will continue to be a top-shelf priority in 2017, pleading for an end to the “homicidal madness” of terrorism and war.
In particular, Francis issued a challenge to religious leaders of all faiths to reject, once and for all, the idea that killing in the name of God can ever be justified.
“Sadly, we are conscious that even today, religious experience, rather than fostering openness to others, can be used at times as a pretext for rejection, marginalization and violence,” Francis said.
Referring to terrorist attacks and other acts of violence that erupted throughout 2016 in places such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belgium, Egypt, France, Germany, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and even the United States, Francis said, “We are dealing with a homicidal madness which misuses God’s name in order to disseminate death, in a play for domination and power.”
“I appeal to all religious authorities to join in reaffirming unequivocally that one can never kill in God’s name,” the pontiff said.
Francis pledged his own ongoing commitment to trying to build bridges among faiths, citing his visits in 2016 to the synagogue of Rome and the mosque of Baku in Azerbaijan, his first-ever encounter with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Cuba, and his trips to Armenia and Georgia that had a heavy emphasis on Catholic/Orthodox relations.
The comments came with his annual address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, generally considered the pope’s most important foreign policy speech of the year, and seen as a reliable indication of which issues and places will loom especially large for the pope and his diplomatic team in the year to come.
The session took place in the Sala Regia of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.
Among other points, Francis insisted that calling religions to step up their peace-marking efforts also implies ensuring that their freedom to act in the public sphere is protected.
Political leaders, he said, “are charged with guaranteeing in the public forum the right to religious freedom, while acknowledging religion’s positive and constructive contribution to the building of a civil society that sees no opposition between social belonging, sanctioned by the principle of citizenship, and the spiritual dimension of life.”
In terms of specific conflict zones which the pope appears to have on his radar screen, Francis began on Monday, as he generally does, by citing Syria.
“I think of the young people affected by the brutal conflict in Syria, deprived of the joys of childhood and youth, such as the ability to play games and to attend school,” he said. “My constant thoughts are with them and the beloved Syrian people.”
“Our common aspiration is that the recently signed truce will be a sign of hope for the whole Syrian people, so greatly in need of it,” Francis said.
A cease-fire between the Russian-backed government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the country’s beleaguered opposition forces took effect on Dec. 23, but reports suggested it was violated within hours, and the accord is widely regarded as fragile.
The pontiff repeated the Vatican’s longstanding support for a two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian problem, saying, “No conflict can become a habit impossible to break.”
Francis also underscored instability and violence in Yemen, Iraq and Libya, saying, “The whole Middle East urgently needs peace!”
Francis also referred to “experiments being conducted on the Korean peninsula” as “particularly disturbing,” presumably a reference to what U.S. officials have described as at least 24 nuclear missile tests by North Korea under leader Kim Jong Un during the past year.
“Nuclear weapons must be banned,” Francis said, as part of a broader campaign to curb the “deplorable arms trade.”
Elsewhere in Asia, Francis pointed to Myanmar, voicing hope that assistance will be brought “to those in grave and pressing need.”
Though he didn’t cite any specific group, he was likely referring to the Rohingya people, a largely Muslim ethnic group of 1.3 million located in the western part of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The Rohingya are regarded as illegal immigrants and do not hold citizenship. They’ve long complained of oppression, and the United Nations has described violations of their rights as “crimes against humanity.”
Francis drew fire from authorities in largely Buddhist Myanmar in 2015 when he described their plight as a kind a war: “This is war, this is called violence, this is called killing!” he said.
In Africa, Francis cited Sudan and South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo as places where hopes for peace are balanced against the real threat of a new cycle of conflict.
At some point in 2017 Francis is expected to visit Africa, with Congo and South Sudan considered his most likely destinations.
In Latin America, Francis mentioned improving relations between the United States and Cuba, as well as an ongoing peace process in Colombia intended to end that country’s more than 60-year-long civil conflict, as signs of hope.
In Venezuela, he said, “processes of dialogue” and “courageous gestures” are urgently needed.
In fact, the Vatican itself has been sponsoring talks in Venezuela between embattled leftist President Nicolas Maduro and his political opposition, but the main opposition alliance recently walked out over Maduro’s refusal to offer confidence-building measures such as releasing jailed activists, allowing humanitarian aid into the country or appointing new electoral authorities.
In Europe, Francis signaled concern for Ukraine, voicing hope that “a prompt response will be given to the humanitarian situation, which remains grave.”
In terms of large themes, Francis expressed gratitude to those heads of state or government who responded during the special jubilee Year of Mercy to his call for an act of clemency towards the incarcerated.
The pontiff repeated his frequent call for “dignified living conditions for prisoners and their reintegration into society.”
Likewise, Francis returned to his familiar theme of concern for immigrants and refugees, specifically recalling a trip to Mexico in February 2016 that brought him to the U.S./Mexico border.
“I felt close to the thousands of migrants from Central America who, in their attempt to find a better future, endure terrible injustices and dangers, victims of extortion and objects of that deplorable trade – that horrible form of modern slavery – which is human trafficking,” he said.
On yet another front long close to Francis’s heart, he also linked the press for peace to the fight against global warming and climate change, and in general to stronger environmental protection.
“The Paris Agreement on the climate, which recently took effect, is an important sign of the shared commitment to bequeath a more beautiful and livable world to those who will come after us,” he said.
“It is my hope that the efforts made in recent times to respond to climate change will meet with increased cooperation on the part of all, for the earth is our common home and we need to realize that the choices of each have consequences for all.”
Finally, on the heels of the “Brexit” vote in the UK to part company with the European Union, Francis voiced broad support for the process of European unification, calling it “a unique opportunity for stability, peace and solidarity between peoples.”
“I can only reaffirm the interest and concern of the Holy See for Europe and its future, conscious that the values that were the inspiration and basis of that project, which this year celebrates its sixtieth anniversary, are values common to the entire continent and transcend the borders of the European Union itself,” Francis said.
As of January 2017, the Holy See has diplomatic relations with 182 nations, having added Mauritania during the course of the year, 88 of whom have residential ambassadors to the Vatican living in Rome.
The near future may give Francis another chance to return to many of these themes, in a setting more within the comfort zone of a populist pope who’s always preferred spontaneous encounters with the base to formal occasions with political and diplomatic elites.
In the United States, a regional version of the pope’s World Meeting of Popular Movements will take place in Modesto, California, Feb. 16-19 at a local Catholic high school. The meeting is designed to bring together NGOs, anti-poverty advocates, environmental groups, trade unions, associations for the homeless and for landless persons, and a variety of other social activists.
Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson, who heads Francis’s new Vatican department on integral human development, will be on hand, and reportedly the pontiff himself may also take part through some form of teleconferencing technology.