ROME – Marking the first annual day of prayer for peace in the Middle East called by the region’s Catholic patriarchs, Pope Francis Sunday urged everyone to ask God for mercy in the place where the Christian faith “was born and is alive, despite the suffering.”

“To those dear populations, may God always grant peace, perseverance and courage,” the pontiff said after his weekly Angelus prayer from a window in the Apostolic Palace overlooking St. Peter’s Square.

Despite a torrid Roman summer day, thousands had gathered in the square to join Francis in prayer and to receive the papal blessing.

Earlier in the day, the Vatican’s press office released a letter from the pope addressed to the Catholic patriarchs of the Middle East, in which he thanked them for inviting him to join in prayer “on this especial day,” invoking from God “the gift of peace in the Middle East and to consecrate it to the Holy Family.”

“If violence, envy, division, can tear even one of [the threads that make the Middle East], the whole is wounded and disfigured,” Francis said, referring to the cultural diversity of the region.

“At that moment, human projects and agreements can do little if we do not trust in the healing power of God. Do not seek to quench your thirst at the poisoned springs of hatred, but let the field of your hearts be watered by the dew of the Spirit, as the great saints of your respective traditions did: Coptic, Maronite, Melkite, Syriac, Armenian, Chaldean, Latin.”

“How many civilizations and dominations have risen, flourished and then fallen, with their wondrous works and conquests on the ground: all have passed away,” Francis wrote, noting, however, that the word of God has remained and it continues to “illuminate.”

The day of prayer for the Middle East was announced by Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa of Jerusalem, president of the Assembly of the Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land. This year it took place on Sunday.

Moving forth, every year the day of prayer will include a Mass led by the patriarch in Nazareth, and the Council of the Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops in the Middle East will be invited to say Mass in their own countries at the same time, including Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Palestina and Syria.

According to the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), which focuses on Christian communities that are persecuted or at risk, the heart of the prayer for peace was the consecration of the region to the Holy Family, “invoking protection, peace, and reconciliation.”

An icon of the Holy Family from Nazareth was present during the Mass said by Pizzaballa, which will now go on a pilgrimage through different countries in the Middle East until its arrival to Rome toward the end of the Year of St. Joseph on December 8, 2021. From Rome, the icon will travel back to the Holy Land where it will remain.

In his letter, Francis applauded the decision to consecrate the region to the Holy Family, saying that it represents “your identity and your mission.”

To guard Jesus, the pope wrote, “Joseph and Mary set out on their journey to Egypt, combining the humility of the birth in Bethlehem with the poverty of people forced to emigrate. In this way, however, they remain faithful to their vocation and unknowingly anticipate the destiny of exclusion and persecution that will be the destiny of the adult Jesus, who will reveal the response of the Father on Easter morning.”

The idea for the day of prayer came from the Justitia et Pax commission based in Lebanon, headed by the Maronite Archbishop Chucrallah-Nabil El-Hage. Speaking with ACN, he said there can be “no justice and no peace” without changing the hearts of the people, and the one way to accomplish this is God’s mercy and prayer, because those who “pray with sincerity cannot feel hate.”

“The Middle East knows no peace. Wars define our region,” he said. “Take Yemen for example. There are hardly any Christians there. However, as believers, we cannot just shrug off the conflict that has been raging there for many years. The Holy Land, on the other hand, is currently being shaken by another round of violence. The conflict in Syria has not been resolved. Nor that in Libya. Lebanon is suffering a severe economic crisis. Our country is marked by inflation, unemployment and hardship. We are truly in need of prayers for peace.”

The prelate also regretted that, after the fall of the terrorist organization ISIS, attention from the Universal Church towards Christians in the Middle East has waned.

Since the beginning of his pontificate, Francis made several gestures that showed concern for the region, including trips to the Holy Land, Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Iraq. He’s also called the universal Church to pray for Syria and Lebanon, and in 2018, invited all the patriarchs for an ecumenical prayer in Bari. Next Thursday, continuing with his efforts to foster peace in the Middle East, the pontiff will host all the Christian leaders of the Land of the Cedars for a day of prayer in the Vatican.

“Consecration to the Holy Family also summons each one of you to rediscover as individuals and as a community your vocation as Christians in the Middle East, not only by demanding due recognition of your rights as original citizens of those beloved lands, but by living your mission as custodians and witnesses of the first apostolic origins,” Francis wrote in his letter.

A day dedicated to peace

His prayer for the Middle East were not the Argentine’ pontiff only words about peace on Sunday: Italian newspaper La Repubblica published a long excerpt of a never-before published text by Francis, part of the book “Peace on Earth. Fraternity is possible,” to be published by the Vatican’s editorial company June 28.

“Forgetting the pain of wars, makes one defenseless against the logic of hatred,” the pope wrote in the book, that was prefaced by Coptic Orthodox Patriarch Tawardos II.

Francis denounces that “today war is being dangerously re-evaluated: people easily opt for war by advancing all kinds of apparently humanitarian, defensive or preventive excuses, even resorting to the manipulation of information.”

“Are we aware of the suffering of so many from war? Are we aware of the risks to humanity? Do we try in some way to put out the fire of wars and prevent them? Or are we distracted and bent on our own interests? Or are we satisfied that war does not affect us closely?” the pope asks, noting that these are questions that should disturb the political leaders who will have to answer “before God and the peoples” for each armed conflict.

Francis also urges public opinion to stay vigilante, because even if citizens of a country cannot act directly on conflict, they can still exert pressure on the international community, act for peace instead of slipping into indifference because, “indifference is complicit in war.”

Lastly, the pope questioned Christians who have a sword on their fist or who manufacture them, so that others will kill themselves.

“Enough with swords, weapons, violence, war!” Francis said. “Today, unfortunately, deadly and sophisticated armaments are being made,” but the arms trade must end, because there’s “no justification for it,” even if it means the loss of jobs.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma