Pope Francis has appealed for the protection of women and children fleeing violence in Syria, where more than half a million people have been displaced in the past two months.
Around 520,000 have been displaced from their homes since December during the Syrian government’s offensive in Idlib province – Syria’s last rebel-held territory – which borders Turkey.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 80% of displaced persons are women and children.
Calling for peaceful negotiation and humanitarian protection, the Pope prayed a Hail Mary for those threatened with violence in northwest Syria.
“Painful news continues to arrive from the northwest of Syria, in particular on the conditions of many women and children, people forced to flee due to military escalation,” said Pope Francis in his Angelus address on February 9.
“I renew my heartfelt appeal to the international community and to all the actors involved to make use of diplomatic instruments, dialogue and negotiations, in compliance with international humanitarian law, to safeguard the life and fate of civilians.”
A day earlier, on February 8, the Holy Father held a private meeting in the Vatican with Catholic patriarchs of the Middle East over the survival of Christians in the region.
They provided Pope Francis with an overview of conditions in the area as a result of persecution, extremism, economic insecurity and immigration of Christians to the West.
Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai (and patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church) said the occasion highlighted the “importance of the word and stance” of the Pope’s awareness and concern regarding the Middle East.
He noted “the importance of the presence of Christians, their role and mission” in coexisting with Muslims and the Holy See in “its diplomatic relations with the international family to put an end to the wars and conflicts that our Arab world suffers from.”
Syrian Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan noted “in an atmosphere of frankness, respect and appreciation” the Pope gave reassurance that “he was closely concerned with the situation in the Middle East”.
He stated that the Pope “endeavoured with all his strength to stop the powerful of this world from interfering in affairs of the Middle East region”.
Patriarch Younan added Pope Francis feels people have rights to have honest governments who respect citizens and seek the good of the homeland.
The patriarch concluded that the Pope said he would continue to defend Syria and stated that the country is “always in his heart and mind”.
Other patriarchs at the meeting were Iraqi Cardinal Louis Sako (Chaldean patriarch), Melkite Catholic Patriarch Joseph Absi, Armenian Patriarch Gregory Peter XX Ghabroyan and Coptic Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak.