Pope Francis offers support to beleaguered Christians of Syria and Iraq

33204086002 158135b997 o Pope Francis, pictured on October 4, 2014. | Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk.

Pope Francis urged Catholic charities Thursday to continue supporting embattled Christian minorities in Syria and Iraq.

He made the comment in a video message Dec. 10 to participants in an online meeting sponsored by the Vatican's Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

"In particular, I remember the Christians forced to abandon the places where they were born and grew up, where their faith developed and was enriched," the pope said

"We must ensure that the Christian presence in these lands continues to be what it has always been: a sign of peace, progress, development and reconciliation between persons and peoples."

The Vatican announced Monday that the pope intends to visit Iraq on March 5-8, 2021. The four-day trip is expected to include stops in Baghdad, Erbil and Mosul. 

The online meeting on Thursday brought together representatives of 50 Catholic charities and other Church bodies present in Syria, Iraq and neighboring countries.

The pope offered encouragement to charities seeking to rebuild Syria, which continues to suffer from a war that began in 2011, and Iraq, which fought a bloody battle with Islamic State forces from 2014 to 2017.

"Every effort -- large or small -- made to foster the peace process is like putting a brick in the construction of a just society, one that is open to welcome, and where all can find a place to dwell in peace," he said. 

"My thoughts go especially to the people who have had to leave their homes to escape the horrors of war, in search of better living conditions for themselves and their loved ones."

The pope appealed to governments across the world to help Syrian and Iraqi refugees return to their homelands. 

According to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, more than 5.6 million people have left Syria since 2011, seeking refuge in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere. More than 260,000 Iraqis have fled their country and more than three million have been deplaced internally since 2014.

"I appeal to the international community to make every effort to facilitate this return, guaranteeing the security and economic conditions necessary for this to happen. Every gesture, every effort in this direction is precious," the pope said.

The meeting, held via Zoom, also included speeches by Vatican officials and Cardinal Mario Zenari, the apostolic nuncio to Syria. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, was due to give the opening address, but was unable to attend in person. His speech was read out by Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican's Secretary for Relations with States.

Parolin painted a grim picture of the region, which he said was "characterized by economic crisis, aggravated by political deadlock or even institutional crisis and, more recently, by the COVID-19 pandemic." 

Parolin said that, given the "absolute gravity" of the situation, Catholic charities should continue their projects in Iraq, Jordan and Turkey, but also give special attention to Syria and Lebanon. 

The cardinal noted that Lebanon was suffering from a deep socio-economic crisis following the explosion in the capital, Beirut, in August. He said the country urgently required assistance "not only for reconstruction but also for the support of Catholic schools and hospitals, two cornerstones of the Christian presence in the country and throughout the region."

Pope Francis concluded his video message by praising Catholic charities for following the example of the Good Samaritan by offering assistance without regard for creed or affiliation.

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"As I have said many times, the Church is not an NGO. Our charitable action must be inspired by and with the Gospel," he said. 

"This aid must be a tangible sign of the charity of a local Church that helps another Church that is suffering, through these marvelous means that are the Catholic agencies of humanitarian aid and development. A Church helping another Church!"

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