ROME – An Easter Sunday Urbi et Orbi address, “to the city and the world,” generally offers a quick summary of a given pontiff’s top diplomatic and political concerns, and for those familiar with Pope Francis’s agenda, it’s no surprise that Syria took top billing again this year.
“Today we implore fruits of peace upon the entire world, beginning with the beloved and long-suffering land of Syria, whose people are worn down by an apparently endless war,” he said.
“This Easter, may the light of the risen Christ illumine the consciences of all political and military leaders, so that a swift end may be brought to the carnage in course, that humanitarian law may be respected and that provisions be made to facilitate access to the aid so urgently needed by our brothers and sisters, while also ensuring fitting conditions for the return of the displaced,” the pope said.
Though estimates on the death toll produced by the now seven-year-old war in Syria vary, a 2016 study by the Syrian Center for Policy Research asserted that almost 500,000 have died, including both combatants and civilian casualties, while almost two million have been injured.
As of February 2018, more than 5.5 million Syrians had fled the country and 6.1 million are internally displaced, together representing half the country’s population.
Francis has been outspoken in condemning the Syria conflict since the beginning of his papacy. In September 2013, he led the moral opposition to a proposed Western military intervention to bring down the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and was later credited by Russian President Vladimir Putin with having helped prevent such a use of force.
In one sign of the pope’s special concern, in 2016 Francis named his envoy in Damascus, Mario Zenari, as a cardinal, something almost unheard of for Vatican diplomats still serving in an embassy, saying it was a sign of his closeness to “martyred” Syria.
Francis also cited the Holy Land, referring to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Yemen and the entire Middle East on Sunday, praying “that dialogue and mutual respect may prevail over division and violence.”
The pontiff then turned his attention to Africa.
“We invoke on this day fruits of hope for those who yearn for a more dignified life, above all in those areas of the African continent deeply affected by hunger, endemic conflicts and terrorism,” he said.
“May the peace of the risen Lord heal wounds in South Sudan and the strife-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, and open hearts to dialogue and mutual understanding. Let us not forget the victims of that conflict, especially the children! May there be no lack of solidarity with all those forced to abandon their native lands and lacking the bare essentials for living.”
According to U.N. estimates, fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo has produced around four million refugees and internally displaced persons, and, while estimates of the death toll vary widely, some observers believe that on-again, off-again violence has left as many as five million Congolese dead, the vast majority civilians.
At a time when the leaders of North and South Korea are readying to meet on April 27, which could help set the stage for a meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, Francis urged dialogue and peace.
“We implore fruits of dialogue for the Korean peninsula, that the discussions under way may advance harmony and peace within the region,” he said. “May those who are directly responsible act with wisdom and discernment to promote the good of the Korean people and to build relationships of trust within the international community.”
In Ukraine, the pope expressed hope that “steps taken to favor harmony may be consolidated,” and in Venezuela, where a long-running political stalemate is driving an economic implosion, Francis prayed for “fruits of consolation.”
“May that nation, by the power of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, find a just, peaceful and humane way to surmount quickly the political and humanitarian crises that grip it,” he said. “May welcome and assistance not be wanting to its sons and daughters forced to abandon their homeland.”
More generally, Francis offered a quick synthesis of the social problems that have engaged him most over the last five years, praying that new hope may be found for resolving them.
“We Christians believe and know that Christ’s resurrection is the true hope of the world, the hope that does not disappoint … It is the power of the grain of wheat, the power of that love which humbles itself and gives itself to the very end, and thus truly renews the world,” he said.
“This power continues to bear fruit today in the furrows of our history, marked by so many acts of injustice and violence. It bears fruits of hope and dignity where there are deprivation and exclusion, hunger and unemployment, where there are migrants and refugees (so often rejected by today’s culture of waste), and victims of the drug trade, human trafficking and contemporary forms of slavery.”
The pontiff also expressed special concern for children and the elderly.
“May the risen Christ bring fruits of new life to those children, who as a result of wars and hunger, grow up without hope, lacking education and health care; and to those elderly persons who are cast off by a selfish culture that ostracizes those who are not ‘productive’,” he said.
Prior to delivering the address, Francis was hailed, as is customary, by a band composed of members of the Swiss Guard and the Italian Carabinieri, playing the Vatican’s national anthem. He spoke from the central balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, one of only two occasions during the year when a pope greets a crowd from the same space in which he stood to do so immediately after his election. (The other comes with the Urbi et Orbi address on Christmas Day.)
The pope’s next pubic appearance will come tomorrow for Easter Monday, known in Italy as pasquetta, meaning “little Easter.” He’ll deliver a noontime Angelus address, in that case from the window of the papal apartment overlooking St. Peter’s Square.