ROME – After a year that saw thousands of civilians die in violent conflicts such as wars in Gaza and in Ukraine, Pope Francis told diplomats accredited to the Holy See Monday that international war crimes must be recognized and prevented.
In his Jan. 8 address, the pope noted said that as the year 2024 opens the world is “increasingly lacerated” by conflict, and as “the distinction between military and civil objectives is no longer respected.”
“There is no conflict that does not end up in some way indiscriminately striking the civilian population,” he said, adding, “The events in Ukraine and Gaza are clear proof of this.”
In this regard, “We must not forget that grave violations of international humanitarian law are war crimes, and that it is not sufficient to point them out, but also necessary to prevent them,” Francis said.
“Consequently, there is a need for greater effort on the part of the international community to defend and implement humanitarian law, which seems to be the only way to ensure the defense of human dignity in situations of warfare,” he said.
Pope Francis spoke during his annual speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, who represent the 184 nations that currently have full diplomatic relations with the Holy See, as well as those with other forms of representation.
He focused his speech on the topic of peace “at a moment in history when it is increasingly threatened, weakened and in part lost,” repeating his past affirmation that the world is experiencing “a third world war fought piecemeal” that is turning into “a genuine global conflict.”
In terms of current conflicts, the pope pointed specifically to the conflict raging between Israel and Palestine, voicing “shock” at Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the torture, killing, and kidnapping of hundreds of innocent people.
To this end, he condemned the attack “and every instance of terrorism and extremism,” saying violence is never a way to resolve conflicts.
As proof of this, he noted that the attack provoked “a strong Israeli military response in Gaza that has led to the death of tens of thousands of Palestinians, mainly civilians…and has caused an exceptionally grave humanitarian crisis and inconceivable suffering.”
Francis repeated his call for a ceasefire “on every front, including Lebanon,” and he urged the immediate release of the Israeli hostages still being held in Gaza.
He also repeated his calls for a two-state solution, “one Israeli and one Palestinian, as well as an internationally guaranteed special status for the City of Jerusalem, so that Israelis and Palestinians may finally live in peace and security.”
Pope Francis also lamented the ongoing war “waged by the Russian Federation against Ukraine,” saying, “One cannot allow the persistence of a conflict that continues to metastasize, to the detriment of millions of persons.”
“It is necessary to put an end to the present tragedy through negotiations, in respect for international law,” he said.
Both Russia and Israel have faced allegations of war crimes in their respective conflicts.
Last year the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin on various charges, and Russian politician Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation, for the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.
Likewise, Israel has been accused by various countries of committing war crimes amid its ongoing military offensive in Gaza, with an estimated 17,000 Palestinian civilians having died in the war since October, roughly 70 percent of whom are women and children.
In his speech, Pope Francis said there is a need “to realize more clearly that civilian victims are not ‘collateral damage,’” but real people with names, faces and stories.
“Were we to be able to look each of them in the eye, call them by name, and learn something of their personal history, we would see war for what it is: Nothing other than an immense tragedy, a ‘useless slaughter,’” he said.
He lamented various other conflicts raging throughout the world, issuing a condemnation of the “protracted crisis” in Nicaragua causing “painful consequences” for society, including the Catholic Church, with Bishop Rolando José Álvarez still behind bars.
Pope Francis again condemned the global arms trade and called for a global policy of disarmament, “since it is illusory to think that weapons have deterrent value.”
“Weapons create mistrust and divert resources,” he said, insisting that funds invested in weapons would be better spent on alleviating crises in food, education, and healthcare. To this end, he also condemned the prominence of nuclear weapons and called for negotiations to restart the Iran Nuclear Deal.
Francis said the root causes of war must be addressed, and lamented the thousands of migrants who fall victims to traffickers or die along perilous routes in their attempt to find a better life.
“Faced with such an immense tragedy, we can easily end up closing our hearts, entrenching ourselves behind fears of an ‘invasion,’” he said, saying the mediterranean must be a place of encounter and welcome, with an appropriate regulation of migrant arrivals.
To this end, he welcomed the EU’s efforts to reach a common solution through the Pact on Migration and Asylum.
Pope Francis also said peace cannot be achieved without respect for every human life, “starting with the life of the unborn child in the mother’s womb, which cannot be suppressed or turned into an object of trafficking.”
He condemned the practice of surrogate motherhood, calling it a “grave violation” of both the women and children involved, and called for the international community to collectively prohibit the practice.
From its beginning, human life must be “preserved and defended,” he said, and pointed to what he said was the continual “spread of a culture of death” in the West which discards children, the elderly, and the sick.
Respect for human rights is also a prerequisite for peace, Francis said, noting that in recent decades attempts have been made to introduce new rights “that are neither fully consistent with those originally defined nor always acceptable.”
These proposed new rights, he said, “have led to instances of ideological colonization, in which gender theory plays a central role.”
Calling gender theory “extremely dangerous since it cancels differences in its claim to make everyone equal,” he said instances of ideological colonization “prove injurious and create divisions between states, rather than fostering peace.”
Pope Francis lamented the weakening of multilateral diplomacy and increased polarization, saying this creates “the risk of … splitting into ‘clubs’ that only admit states deemed ideologically compatible.”
“Even agencies devoted to the common good and to technical questions, which have thus far proved effective, risk paralysis due to ideological polarization and exploitation by individual states,” he said.
Political and social dialogue are necessary for peace, he said, noting that many countries will hold elections in 2024, including the United States.
“Politics, for its part, should always be understood not as an appropriation of power, but as the highest form of charity, and thus of service to one’s neighbor within a local or national community,” he said.
He stressed the importance of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and voiced concern over the growing number of countries clamping down on religious freedom, “especially by the massive use of technology,” as well as the growth of anti-Christian persecution throughout the world.
On the issue of technology, Francis noted that his message for peace this year is dedicated to artificial intelligence, calling it “one of the most significant challenges for the years to come.”
“It is essential that technological development take place in an ethical and responsible way, respecting the centrality of the human person, whose place can never be taken by an algorithm or a machine,” he said, saying this requires collaboration at the national, international, political and social levels.
Pope Francis closed his speech noting that the Jubilee of Hope is set to begin at the end of this year, saying, “Today, perhaps more than ever, we need a Holy Year.”
Amid the various situations of hopelessness and suffering that countless people are living, “the Jubilee is a proclamation that God never abandons his people and constantly keeps open the doors to his Kingdom,” he said.
Noting that jubilee years are times of grace and repentance in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the pope said it is a time when “sins are forgiven, reconciliation prevails over injustice, and the earth can be at rest.”
“For everyone – Christians and non-Christians alike – the Jubilee can be a time when swords are beaten into ploughshares, a time when one nation will no longer lift up sword against another, nor learn war anymore,” he said, and wished the diplomats and their families blessings for the new year.
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