ROSARIO, Argentina – With months to go still until his March 5-8 trip to Iraq, Pope Francis on Thursday began shaping his message, urging a network of Catholic charities to help Christians who have fled the region to return home if they want to do so.

In a video message sent to a Vatican-organized summit focused on the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria and Iraq, Francis lamented the plight of so many Christians who fled the place of their birth, where their faith first blossomed.

“We must work to ensure that the Christian presence in these lands continue to be what it has always been: a sign of peace, progress, development, and reconciliation between peoples,” he said.

Close to 50 people, between Vatican officials and representatives of local Catholic Churches took part in the Dec. 10 virtual summit organized by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. Though the Zoom dialogue focused mostly on Syria and Iraq, the cases of neighboring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan – all hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees – were also considered.

“This is the 10th year of the bloody violence in Syria, where the bloodshed has continued,” Aloysius John, president of the pontifical Caritas Internationalis charitable organization told Crux after the meeting. “This is also symbolic moment to say: Stop the suffering of the people. Suggestions were put on the table to this end, and it was also made clear that the unilateral sanctions do not serve their purpose, and they need to be removed. All of us need to contribute so that these sanctions are removed.”

During its decade-long civil war, much of Syria’s infrastructure was destroyed by the bombing perpetrated by several governments – including Russia, the U.S., Turkey and Syria itself.

According to the World Food Program, 9.3 million Syrians don’t know where they will get their next meal and more than 80 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line.

Caritas Internationalis is trying to get U.S.-imposed sanctions against Syria lifted, arguing that they are hurting civilians more than the government.

John told Crux they’ve already presented their case to the U.N. offices in Geneva.

“I believe Francis will speak about the sanctions and other problems when he’s in Iraq,” he said. “Rich societies should stop dominating others through violence, and we need to stop living in war. Human fraternity is possible.”

“Every effort—be it small or great—carried out to promote the path of peace,” Francis said in the video with which the conference opened, “is like adding a brick to the structure of a just society, which is open and welcoming, and where everyone can find a place to dwell in peace.”

John said that the need for refugees to go back home was also discussed during the meeting, particularly from the perspective of what can aid agencies do to make things easier for those who attempt to do so.

“In some places people want to go back, so Caritas is helping them, sensitizing them, giving them the right information, so that people can fulfill their aspiration to go back home and reconstruct, which I would say, is a normal aspiration to have,” he said. “But precautions need to be taken, and we’re helping those who want to go back to prepare them for what they’ll find.”

Francis also voiced his support to charitable agencies and volunteers who “following the example of the Good Samaritan, work tirelessly to welcome, care for, and accompany the migrants and displaced persons of these lands, without distinction of creed.”

“Our charitable work must be inspired by and in the Gospel,” he noted. “Our assistance must be a tangible sign of a local Church which helps another Church that is suffering, through the wonderful means of Catholic agencies of humanitarian and developmental aid.”

Though the summit was not open to the media, the Vatican dicastery that organized it released a statement in which several of those who took part were quoted, including Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, whose speech was read by the second in command in his office, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher.

Parolin acknowledged that the situation in the entire region is characterized by “the economic crisis, aggravated by the political blockade or even by the institutional crisis and, more recently, by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Today more than ever we must not turn off attention to the needs of the population, we must renew as a Church our charitable commitment alongside the most fragile and needy, also by promoting innovative actions, without forgetting the training of our operators, both professional and spiritual,” Parolin said

In their statement, the Vatican dicastery noted that through the Church’s vast network of aid agencies, over $1 billion has been allocated to help Syria and Iraq since 2014, offering concrete assistance to over four million people each year.

“The situation is changing every day, but the biggest problem today, in this long-lasting crisis, is that people have been suffering for many years and they have gotten used to it: suffering is becoming a way of life,” John said over the phone. “And then there’s the COVID-19 element. What will happen to the people in these violence-torn countries if the coronavirus outbreak continues?”

“But what I ask is, how long will this be their way of living? Will they suffer continuously, without end? It’s made people completely and totally indifferent, with children who are 10-years-old and who’ve only known violence,” he said.

“The war came from outside, and it has to stop, so we can star reconstructing Syria and people can actually have a violence-free life,” he said, but “due to the sin of indifference, the whole world has become indifferent to the suffering of these populations. This has to change also.”

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