Pope Francis said Saturday that peace in the Middle East will never be achieved through division, violence or the pursuit of private interests, and called for negotiation on issues such as the status of Jerusalem and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As he has often done in the past, the pope condemned the arms trade, using Hiroshima and Nagasaki as an example of the potential destruction of major weapons, and stressed the need to drop a profit mentality which exploits both the land and the poor, favoring instead a vision that puts the best interests of the person in first place.
In a July 7 speech closing an ecumenical gathering in Bari with heads of Christian churches in the Middle East, Francis said that for peace to be a realistic possibility, “it is essential that those in power choose finally and decisively to work for true peace and not for their own interests.”
“Let there be an end to the few profiting from the sufferings of many! No more occupying territories and thus tearing people apart! No more letting half-truths continue to frustrate people’s aspirations! Let there be an end to using the Middle East for gains that have nothing to do with the Middle East!” he said.
There is no alternative to peacemaking if the Middle East is to thrive, the pope said, saying these efforts toward peace must be cultivated in the “parched soil of conflict” which has plagued the region for years.
“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,” he said, and urged Christians to commit to working and praying together in hopes that “the art of encounter will prevail over strategies of conflict.”
Pope Francis spoke after holding a private meeting with heads of Christian Churches in the Middle East during his July 7 daytrip to Bari for an ecumenical encounter titled “Peace be upon you! Christians together for the Middle East” and organized to discuss promoting peace in the region.
Located in the southern Italian region of Puglia, Bari is known as the “porta d’Oriente,” or the “Eastern Gate,” because of its connection to both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches through the relics of St. Nicholas, who is highly venerated in both traditions.
The ecumenical gathering in Bari drew the participation of some 19 leaders of Eastern Catholic Churches and Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, and other ecclesial communities.
After venerating the relics of St. Nicholas and leading both patriarchs and pilgrims in a prayer gathering, Pope Francis and the heads of churches present held a closed-door meeting to evaluate the situation of the Middle East, and discuss peace efforts.
Speaking to crowds after the private discussion, Francis issued a litany of the risks and consequences of war, beginning with the effects conflict has on the poor, who are the “principal victims” of any violence.
Pointing to Syria, he said war is the “daughter of power and poverty,” and can only be defeated by overcoming a “thirst for supremacy.”
He pointed to the problem of fundamentalism and fanaticism as driving factors in many of the world's current conflicts, which “under the guise of religion, have profaned God’s name — which is peace — and persecuted age-old neighbors.”
Violence of any kind “is always fueled by weapons,” he said, stressing that “you cannot speak of peace while you are secretly racing to stockpile new arms. This is a most serious responsibility weighing on the conscience of nations, especially the most powerful.”
Pointing to the devastation that ensued in the aftermath of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the pope urged the world not to forget the destructive potential of an unbridled pursuit of power and profit.
“Let us not turn the Middle East, where the Word of peace sprang up, into dark stretches of silence. Let us have enough of stubborn opposition,” he said, and condemned the “thirst for profit that surreptitiously exploits oil and gas fields without regard for our common home, with no scruples about the fact that energy market now dictates the law of coexistence among peoples!”
The pope also called for a “common citizenship” among all people in the Middle East, where Christians and other minorities are often viewed as second-class citizens, and are subject to persecution and discrimination.
Turning to Jerusalem, an inter-religious hub sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, Francis said he was “anguished” to think about the ongoing tensions in the area, and said the status quo of the city “demands to be respected, as decided by the international community and repeatedly requested by the Christian communities of the Holy Land.”
“Only a negotiated solution between Israelis and Palestinians, firmly willed and promoted by the international community, will be able to lead to a stable and lasting peace, and guarantee the coexistence of two states for two peoples,” he said.
Noting the high number of children who have died in armed conflicts, Pope Francis said hope for the Middle East “has the face of children,” and lamented the “appalling” number of children who have either died, or witnessed death in their families.
“This is the death of hope,” he said, noting that “all too many children have spent most of their lives looking at rubble instead of schools, hearing the deafening explosion of bombs rather than the happy din of playgrounds.”
“May humanity listen — this is my plea — to the cry of children,” he said, because “only by wiping away their tears will the world recover its dignity.”
Francis closed his speech voicing hope that a longing for peace would be stronger than the “dark cloud” of conflict that has overshadowed the region, and prayed that the Middle East would not longer be an “ark of war,” but an “ark of peace” which is welcoming to people from all backgrounds and beliefs.
“Beloved Middle East, may you see dispelled the darkness of war, power, violence, fanaticism, unfair gains, exploitation, poverty, inequality and lack of respect for rights,” he said, and prayed that justice would “dwell within your borders, and may God’s blessing come to rest upon you.”