ROME – Days after the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani by the United States, Pope Francis issued an appeal for peace and calm Sunday amid what he said is an “air of tension” throughout the world.
“In many parts of the world there is a terrible air of tension,” the pope said in his Jan. 5 noontime Angelus address, adding, “War brings only death and destruction.”
“I call on all parties to keep the flame of dialogue and self-control burning, and to ward off any shadow of enmity,” he said.
Francis’s plea for peace followed the assassination of Soleimani, the top general and intelligence and security commander and one of the most powerful men in Iran, in an American drone strike at Baghdad airport in Iraq early Friday.
The strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iranian-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Both Soleimani and Muhandis had previously been sanctioned by the United States for alleged sponsorship of terrorism.
Soleimani, whose death is considered by many to be a major blow to Iran, led the foreign branch of the Revolutionary Guards and played a key role in Iran’s activities in Syria and Iraq.
Widely seen as a possible future leader of Iran, Soleimani was highly influential in cementing Iran’s influence in the Middle East. He survived several previous attempts on his life and was rumored to have been killed on numerous occasions.
Friday’s drone strike was made amid tensions between the United States and Iran following a New Year’s Eve attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad by Iran-backed militias. During the 2-day attack, U.S. President Donald Trump sent some 750 soldiers to the Middle East to mitigate the situation.
In a statement after the strike, Trump said he was not seeking a war with Iran nor a “regime change,” but he insisted the action was taken in a bid to prevent plans endangering the United States, of which Solemani, whom he called a “sick monster,” was the mastermind.
“We took action last night to stop a war, we did not take action to start a war,” he said, adding that “Soleimani made the death of innocent people his sick passion, contributing to terror plots as far away as New Delhi and London.”
The move, which heightened already strong tensions between the U.S. and Iran, prompted immediate blowback in the international community and from Iranian leaders.
Iran’s Supreme National Security Council issued a statement following Soleimani’s death promising retaliation “in the right place and time.”
“America should know that its criminal attack on General Soleimani has been the country’s biggest mistake in west Asia, and America will not avoid the consequences of this wrong calculation easily,” the statement said, adding that the “criminals” who carried out the strike “will face vengeance.”
Though some Iranians voiced relief at Soleimani’s death on social media, tens of thousands more took to the streets in protest, shouting “Death to America” and holding up posters of Soleimani, according to reports from regional papers.
Soleimani’s body arrived in Iran Sunday, with thousands turning out to pay him homage.
In the wake of Soleimani’s assassination, the U.S. ordered that its embassies and American citizens living in the region stay on lockdown due to the threat of retaliatory attacks. Trump has sent thousands of additional troops to the Middle East as a precaution.
During his Angelus address, Francis asked pilgrims to pray in silence “for the Lord to give us this grace” of maintaining dialogue and avoiding further escalation.
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
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