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Pope Francis petitions Assad to protect weak and defenseless in Syria

A member of the Syrian civil defence, known as the White Helmets, carries an injured child into an ambulance after pulling him out from under the rubble following a reported Russian air strike (Getty)

In a letter to the Syrian president, the Pope made particular reference to the situation in Idlib

Pope Francis, with concern for the humanitarian crisis in bombarded Idlib, has called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to safeguard the weak and defenseless civil population in his country.

“The Holy Father asks the president to do everything possible to stop this humanitarian catastrophe, to safeguard the defenseless population, especially the weakest, in compliance with International Humanitarian Law,” Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin told Vatican News July 22.

The Pope’s appeal was made in a letter delivered to Assad July 22 by Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, during a meeting with the president in Damascus.

Also present at the meeting were the apostolic nuncio to Syria, Cardinal Mario Zenari, and Fr. Nicola Riccardi, undersecretary of the Integral Human Development dicastery.

According to a statement by press office director Matteo Bruni, Francis’ letter makes particular reference to the situation of the civil population in Idlib.

Idlib, located on the Turkish border in northwestern Syria, is the last major rebel stronghold in the country. Since Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air cover, launched an offensive in late April, the city has seen intensive airstrikes and bombardment, resulting in the death of more than 2,000 people and the displacement of hundreds of thousands.

At least 19 people, including 16 civilians, were killed, and dozens injured, Monday in an airstrike on a market in Idlib. The strike followed one day after other air raids in the region killed 18.

“Pope Francis renews his appeal to protect the lives of civilians and preserve the main infrastructures, such as schools, hospitals and health facilities,” Parolin said. “Indeed what is happening is inhuman and cannot be accepted.”

Parolin said the pope’s letter to Assad encourages the president to show “goodwill” and to make an effort to find “viable solutions” to end a conflict which has lasted too long and taken a large number of innocent lives.

Pope Francis is worried about the stalled negotiation process, Parolin said, and urges the use of diplomacy, dialogue, and negotiation. He recalled a phrase of the pope repeated in the letter, that “war provokes war and violence provokes violence.”

According to Parolin, in his letter Francis gives several concrete examples of steps which should be taken, such as the creation of safe conditions for internally and externally displaced people to return home if desired, the release of prisoners, and access for families to information about loved ones.

The letter also addresses political prisoners, which Parolin said is a situation “particularly close at heart for Pope Francis.”

Citing a March 2018 report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Parolin said there are tens of thousands of people arbitrarily detained, sometimes in unofficial prisons where they may be tortured and executed.

Pope Francis also sent a letter to Assad at the end of 2016, appealing for a peaceful resolution to hostilities and an end to extremism.

The Syrian civil war began in March 2011 with demonstrations against the nation’s president, Bashar al-Assad. The war has claimed the lives of more than 500,000 people, and forced 5.6 million to become refugees. Another 6.6 million Syrians are believed to have been internally displaced by the violence.

The civil war is being fought among the Syrian regime and a number of rebel groups. The rebels include moderates, such as the Free Syrian Army; Islamists such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamic State; and Kurdish separatists.