Francis makes urgent appeal for Syrian peace talks, political solution

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis on Sunday strongly called on the international community to find a way to facilitate negotiations among the warring parties in Syria, saying he is watching the struggles of civilians there with much worry.

"I am following with deep concern the dramatic fate of civilian populations involved in heavy fighting in beloved Syria and forced to leave everything behind to escape the horrors of war," said the pontiff, speaking during his weekly Angelus address in St. Peter's Square.

"I hope that, with generous solidarity, you will lend the necessary help to ensure their survival and dignity," he told crowds in the Square. 

"I make an appeal to the international community to not spare any effort to urgently bring the parties to the negotiating table," the pope continued. "Only a political solution of the conflict will be able to guarantee a future of reconciliation and peace in that beloved and martyred country."

Francis was speaking Sunday just days after United Nations-brokered peace talks between Syrian government and opposition officials broke down Wednesday, only three days after they started. Opposition officials had said new Syrian government and Russian air attacks made negotiation impossible.

The UN has said it will try to restart talks towards the end of the month.

Francis' words on the Syrian conflict were part of an abnormally dense Angelus address, during which the pope also addressed pro-life issues, human trafficking, the upcoming Lunar New Year, his just announced meeting with Russian Patriarch Kirill, and also homilized on the "essential" aspect of Christianity.

Mentioning that Sunday is the day celebrated in Italy as the "Day for Life," the pontiff called for a "renewed commitment in favor of human life from conception to natural death."

He also noted that tomorrow is the "Day for Prayer and Reflection Against Human Trafficking," saying "we need to make every effort to annihilate this crime and this intolerable shame."

Addressing Monday's celebration of the Lunar New Year, Francis asked the crowds in St. Peter's Square to give applause for friends who will be celebrating the occasion, especially in Asia.

The pontiff reflected earlier in his Angelus address on the Gospel reading of the day, in which Jesus recruits his fishermen Simon Peter, James and John as apostles, telling them that they would now be "fishers of men."

Speaking on Peter's reaction to Jesus' approaching him -- "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man" -- the pope said that the apostle was reacting as if "there should be distance between the sinner and the holy one."

"In truth, the condition of the sinner requires that the Lord does not distance himself from him, in the same way in which a doctor cannot distance himself from someone who is sick," said Francis.

"This is the logic that guides the mission of Jesus and the mission of the church: going in search, 'fishing' for men and women not to proselytize but to return to all the fullness of dignity and freedom, through the forgiveness of sins," said the pope.

"This is the essential part of Christianity," he said. "Spreading God's free and regenerating love, with an attitude of welcoming and mercy towards all, so that everyone may encounter the tenderness of God and have fullness of life."

"In this Holy Year of Mercy we are called to comfort those who feel as sinners and unworthy before the Lord and discouraged for their mistakes, telling them the same words of Jesus: 'Do not be afraid,'" said the pope.

Francis ended his Angelus address Sunday by asking for prayers for his upcoming Feb. 12-18 trip to Mexico, and for his recently announced meeting in Cuba Feb. 12 with Patriarch Kirill, who he called his "dear brother."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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