Pope Francis led a summit of religious leaders demanding peace in the Middle East on Saturday, condemning a “murderous indifference” he said is fanning violence and sparking an exodus of Christians.
Francis convened the summit in the southern Italian city of Bari that for centuries has been a gateway to the Middle East and home to the relics of St. Nicholas, a figure venerated in both the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity.
In what was billed as an “admonition” opening a joint prayer service, Francis spoke of “dark clouds of war, violence and destruction, instances of occupation and varieties of fundamentalism, forced migration and neglect”.
He said: “All this has taken place amid the complicit silence of many.”
While the pope did not name any specific place or protagonist in any conflict, looming large in the background was the Syrian war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and uprooted around 11 million others, including 6 million abroad as refugees.
St. Nicholas, who lived about 1,700 years ago in what is today Turkey, is venerated among Orthodox Christians, including those in Russia, which is Syria’s ally in the civil war. The Russian Orthodox Church sent its number two to the Bari meeting.
“Indifference kills, and we desire to lift up our voices in opposition to this murderous indifference. We want to give a voice to those who have none, to those who can only wipe away their tears,” Francis said.
“For the Middle East today is weeping, suffering and silent as others trample upon those lands in search of power or riches,” he said, speaking from a podium on the waterfront with about 20 other Christian leaders, most of them from Orthodox Churches.
In a gesture to show their equality, the pope and key participants including black-robed Orthodox leaders were driven together in a tourist-style open-top bus from the 12th century Romanesque style Basilica of St. Nicholas to the prayer service on the waterfront facing east.
“Let us pray as one, begging the Lord of heaven for that peace which the powerful of our world have not yet been able to find,” the pope said.
Prayers for peace in the Middle East were read in Italian, English, Greek, Arabic, Armenian and Assyrian.
A special mention was made of the need for peace in Jerusalem, which the pope called “the holy city beloved of God and wounded by men”.
The status of the holy city is at the heart of a bitter conflict. Israel says it is the country’s united and eternal capital while Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of any future state.
One of the topics at private meetings later was expected to be the dwindling number of Christians in the Middle East, as many flee conflicts and dire economic conditions.
Francis said their disappearance would lead to the “disfiguring the very face of the region. For a Middle East without Christians would not be the Middle East”.
Walls, occupation, fundamentalism block Mideast peace
Pope Francis further said that building walls, occupying territories and religious fanaticism would never bring peace to the Middle East.
Speaking at the end of a summit of Christian religious leaders, Francis also repeated his view that the “status quo” of the contested city of Jerusalem should be respected, and backed a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Truces maintained by walls and displays of power will not lead to peace, but only the concrete desire to listen and to engage in dialogue will,” he said.
“Let there be an end to the few profiting from the sufferings of many. No more occupying territories and thus tearing people apart,” he said.
Francis said many conflicts had been stoked by “forms of fundamentalism and fanaticism that, under the guise of religion, have profaned God’s name - which is peace - and persecuted age-old neighbors”.
He said every community in the Middle East should be protected, “not simply the majority,” and took a swipe at weapons procurement, saying “You cannot speak of peace while you are secretly racing to stockpile new arms”.