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VATICAN CITY, Dec 25, (Agencies): Pope Francis issued a Christmas Day prayer that recent UN-backed peace processes for Syria and Libya will quickly end the suffering of their people. He denounced the “monstrous evil” and atrocities they have endured and praised the countries that have taken in their refugees. Speaking from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, Francis issued a plenary indulgence for Catholics in hopes of spreading the church’s message of mercy in a world torn by war, poverty and extremist attacks.
The sun-soaked St. Peter’s Square was under heavy security, as it has been since the Nov 13 Paris attacks by Islamic extremists that left 130 dead. An indulgence is an ancient church tradition related to the forgiveness of sins. Francis announced it after delivering his annual “Urbi et Orbi” (To the city and the world) speech listing global hotspots and his prayers for an end to human suffering.
Francis referred to the “brutal acts of terrorism” that struck the French capital this year as well as attacks in Egypt’s airspace and in Beirut, Mali and Tunisia. He denounced the ongoing conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Ukraine and issued words of consolation to Christians being persecuted for their faith in many parts of the world. “They are our martyrs of today,” he said. In an indirect reference to the Islamic State group, he urged the international community to direct its attention to Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and sub- Saharan Africa, where atrocities “even now reap numerous victims, cause immense suffering and do not even spare the historical and cultural patrimony of entire peoples.”
Francis said he hoped the plenary indulgence he issued for this, his Holy Year of Mercy, would encourage the faithful “to welcome God’s mercy in our lives, and be merciful with our brothers to make peace grow.” “Only God’s mercy can free humanity from the many forms of evil, at times monstrous evil, which selfishness spawns in our midst,” he said.
Libya has been in a state of lawlessness since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011. Syria has seen a five-year war that has killed over 250,000 people and forced millions to flee the country. The surge of refugees flowing out of Syria to Europe has created a migration crisis for the entire continent.
The UN Security Council last week threw its support behind a peace process for Syria including a cease-fire and talks between the Damascus government and the opposition. The council has also recently endorsed the UN-brokered deal to form a unity government that Libya’s rival factions have signed. “We pray to the Lord that the agreement reached in the United Nations may succeed in halting as quickly as possible the clash of arms in Syria and in remedying the extremely grave humanitarian situation of its suffering people,” Francis said. “It is likewise urgent that the agreement on Libya be supported by all, so as to overcome the grave divisions and violence afflicting the country.”
Francis praised both individuals and countries that have taken in refugees fleeing “inhuman conditions,” saying their generosity had helped the newcomers “build a dignified future for themselves and for their dear ones, and to be integrated in the societies which receive them.” Pope Francis urged the world in his Christmas message on Friday to unite to end atrocities by Islamist militants that he said were causing immense suffering in many countries.
Security was tight at the Vatican as Francis, marking the third Christmas since his election in 2013, read his traditional Christmas Day “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) address from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. Tens of thousands of people had to have their bags checked as they entered the Vatican area and then go through airport-style screening if they wanted to enter St. Peter’s Square. Counter-terrorist police with machine guns discreetly patrolled the area in unmarked vans with dark windows.
After calling for an end to the civil wars in Syria and Libya, the pope said: “May the attention of the international community be unanimously directed to ending the atrocities which in those countries, as well as in Iraq, Libya, Yemen and sub-Saharan Africa, even now reap numerous victims, cause immense suffering and do not even spare the historical and cultural patrimony of entire peoples.” He was clearly referring to Islamic State militants who have carried out numerous attacks in those countries and destroyed many cultural heritage sites. In October, Islamic State militants blew up the Arch of Triumph, a jewel in the exquisite collection of ruins in the Syrian oasis city of Palmyra.