ROME – Pope Francis called recent tensions between the U.S. and Iran following the killing of General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad “particularly troubling” Thursday, warning that they risk triggering a “vaster conflict.”

Escalation between the two nations, the pope said, risks “compromising the gradual process of rebuilding in Iraq, as well as setting the groundwork for a vaster conflict that all of us would want to avert.”

Francis renewed his appeal for both sides to “keep alive the flame of dialogue and self-restraint, in full respect of international law.”

His comments came as part of an annual address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican, which is generally interpreted as providing a blueprint of papal priorities and offering a sense of what is foremost on his mind.

In this year’s Jan. 9 address, Francis lamented the fact that “our human family is scarred and wounded by a succession of increasingly destructive wars that especially affect the poor and those most vulnerable.”

“Sadly, the new year does not seem to be marked by encouraging signs, as much as by heightened tensions and acts of violence,” he said, saying heightened tensions between Iran and the United States is “particularly troubling.”

The pope’s speech came shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump said Wednesday that the United States is ready to “embrace peace,” and less than 34 hours after Iran took credit for firing more than 20 ballistic missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq in response to the assassination of Suleimani by U.S. forces last week.

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In light of this and many other raging global conflicts, “we cannot give up hope,” Francis said, adding that to maintain hope “requires courage. It means acknowledging that evil, suffering and death will not have the last word, and that even the most complex questions can and must be faced and resolved.”

In his lengthy 7-page speech, the pope, rather than looking forward to the year to come, looked back at the year that has passed and highlighted a number of key issues he insisted are still worthy of attention in 2020, including the global clerical sexual abuse crisis.

While young people are a sign of hope, “not a few adults, including different members of the clergy, have been responsible for grave crimes against the dignity of young people, children and teenagers, violating their innocence and privacy,” Francis said.

“These are crimes that offend God, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to their victims, and damage the life of whole communities,” he said and pointing to various steps in child protection the Vatican has taken since his February 2019 summit on the topic, which was attended by the heads of all bishops’ conferences worldwide, announced a new initiative for 2020.

Francis also called for greater education for young people and for stronger intergenerational relations and condemned abortion.

Noting that many people today have become indifferent and “self-absorbed,” he said there is a tendency to defend “acquired rights and privileges, and to view the world within a narrow horizon that treats the elderly with indifference and no longer welcomes the newborn.”

As he has in the past, Francis lauded youthful efforts in fighting climate change, the most notable of which is the “Fridays for Future” protests launched by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg. The pope called for a stronger “ecological conversion.”

“Sadly, the urgency of this ecological conversion seems not to have been grasped by international politics, where the response to the problems raised by global issues such as climate change remains very weak and a source of grave concern,” he said, and urged collective international efforts.

Recalling his October 2019 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, Francis insisted that the gathering was “an essentially ecclesial event, prompted by the desire to listen to the hopes and challenges of the Church in Amazonia and to open new paths for the proclamation of the Gospel to the People of God, especially to the indigenous peoples.”

Francis also voiced concern over conflicts raging throughout Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, saying that specifically on his home continent, polarization is making the situation worse, making special mention of Venezuela.

Insisting the conflicts are mostly rooted in inequality, injustice and corruption, the pope pushed political leaders “to work diligently to reestablish a culture of dialogue for the sake of the common good, to reinforce democratic institutions and promote respect for the rule of law, as a means of countering anti-democratic, populist and extremist tendencies.”

He also recalled his trips to the United Arab Emirates and Morocco, highlighting the importance of interreligious dialogue, calling it “the main road to greater knowledge, understanding and reciprocal support between the members of different religions.”

Pointing to the Middle East, he urged the international community to engage more actively in putting a halt to the conflicts, particularly in Syria, criticizing what he said is a “culture of silence” over the war that has been raging there for nearly a decade.

“It is imperative to devise suitable and far-sighted solutions capable of enabling the beloved Syrian people, exhausted by war, to regain peace and to begin the reconstruction of the country,” he said, and voiced concern about increased tensions in Jordan and Lebanon, which have taken in millions of Syrian refugees.

Turning to Africa, he spoke of his September visit to Madagascar, Mozambique and Mauritius in September, and drew attention to other African nations struggling to overcome violence and conflict, particularly Nigeria and South Sudan.

He condemned “continuing episodes of violence against innocent people, including many Christians persecuted and killed for their fidelity to the Gospel,” and urged the international community to work harder to end terrorism and implement strategies promoting security, poverty reduction and better healthcare.

Francis repeated his desire to visit South Sudan alongside Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Reverend John Chalmers, former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, should the country’s leaders implement a long-delayed peace agreement.

On his home turf, Francis voiced a veiled support for European unity, recalling the foundations of European integration in 1949 with the creation of the Council of Europe.

The European project, he said, “continues to be a fundamental guarantee of development for those who have long shared in it, and an opportunity for peace in the aftermath of turbulent conflicts and injuries for those countries that aspire to take part in it.”

Pointing to the tragic fire that destroyed much of France’s famed Notre Dame Cathedral, Francis lauded the solidarity shown by people throughout the world, saying the incident has revived questions about Europe’s identity.

He also repeated his call for nuclear disarmament while in Japan and Thailand in November, saying 2020 “offers an important opportunity in this regard,” with the Tenth Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which will be held in New York April 27-May 22.

“It is my lively hope that the international community will then manage to achieve a conclusive and proactive consensus on ways to implement this international legal instrument, which has shown itself to be all the more important in times like our own,” he said.

Francis also voiced his support for Australia, assuring victims and all those impacted by the many bushfires ravaging the country of his prayers.

In closing remarks, Francis noted that 2020 marks 25 years since the 1995 U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing.

“It is my hope that the invaluable role of women in society may be increasingly acknowledged worldwide and that all forms of injustice, discrimination and violence against women come to an end,” he said, adding that every act of violence and exploitation against women are “not merely wrong; they are crimes that destroy the harmony, the poetry and beauty that God wished to bestow on the world.”

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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