Make Syria ‘priority’ over ‘every other interest’ says Pope Francis

Screen Shot 2020 03 08 at 122255 PM Image of pilgrims holding a sign supporting those suffering in Idlib, Syria, during the Sunday Angelus, March 8, 2020. | Vatican Media/YouTube

Pope Francis issued a plea to the international community to halt the violence and mounting death toll in the Syrian civil war, now in its ninth year.

Speaking on Sunday during the recitation of the Angelus, the pope said that he had "great apprehension for the inhumane situation of these defenseless people, among whom so many are children whose lives are at risk."

Since December, Russian and government forces have launched a series of sustained attacks on opposition towns and cities, bringing a new spike in the violence and accompanying humanitarian crisis.

The pope called on the faithful to "come together to express their solidarity with the Syrian people," especially "those who live in Idlib, and in Northwest Syria."

The northwestern city of Idlib has been the focus of sustained attacked from forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad. Fighting in the region has displaced nearly 1 million people from their homes since December last year.

Turkish-backed rebels have opposed the Syrian government's offensive in the province, which is the country's last rebel-held territory. A cease-fire in the province signed by the leaders of Russia and Turkey went into effect March 6.

On Sunday, Francis asked the international community to make the suffering of the Syrian people a "priority in respect to every other interest," and insisted the world cannot "look away from this humanitarian crisis." 

The pope led the Sunday Angelus prayer from the library of the Apostolic Palace, via video link, instead from the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square. The decision for the pope not to appear in person was taken as Italy and Vatican City worked to respond to the spread of the coronavirus.

Despite the decision, pilgrims still gathered in the square for the prayers, including some holding signs and banners in support of the victims of violence in Syria.

On Saturday, the Vatican also announced that the pope would be saying his daily Mass in the Domus Santa Marta in private, without members of the faithful attending as guests, for at least the next week, and the Wednesday general audience would also be given via video.

The Italian government imposed a strict quarantine March 8 for northern and central regions of Italy, including Milan and Venice.

Most of the 5,883 people who have contracted Covid-19 in Italy have been in the northern regions of the country. The Italian Ministry of Health reported 76 confirmed cases in Rome's Lazio region on the evening of March 7.

With 233 coronavirus-related deaths in Italy in two weeks -- 85 of which have occurred in the past two days -- Italy has had the most Covid-19 mortalities outside of China.

Italy's museums, archaeological sites, concerts, and  movie theaters have all been closed until April 3, the Italian Minister of Tourism said March 8. All schools and universities will also remain closed throughout the country until March 15.

Pope Francis also said Sunday that he is "close in prayer to people suffering from the current coronavirus epidemic."

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