Pope tells it straight to Syria’s president

In a hand-delivered letter, Pope Francis told Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad he is deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation in northern Syria’s Idlib region which has been the target of Russian-backed airstrikes since April.

He also asked for the safe return of the millions of people displaced by years of fighting, information for the families of displaced persons as to their location and conditions, the humane treatment of political prisoners and the resumption of negotiations to seek a political solution to the conflict.

Dozens of schools, rescue centers and hospitals have been destroyed in aerial bombings, with more than 500 civilians believed to have been killed so far.

Cardinal Peter Turkson who heads the Vatican’s department for Promoting Integral Human Development, accompanied by Italian Cardinal Mario Zenari, the pope’s ambassador in Syria, delivered the letter to Assad on Monday.

The Holy See’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, says the letter was a humanitarian gesture urging Assad to take steps towards reconciliation.

“What is happening is intolerable and inhuman,” he said.

“The Holy Father asks the President to do everything possible to put an end to this humanitarian catastrophe, in order to protect the defenceless population, especially those who are most vulnerable.”

Syrian state news agency SANA says Assad had told Turkson it was important to put pressure on countries supporting terrorists, a term Damascus uses to describe the rebels seeking his downfall.

Syria’s war, now in its ninth year, grew out of popular protests against Assad, devastating many towns and cities. An estimated half a million people have died in the fighting.

More than 5.6 million Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt and 6.6 million have been displaced within its borders.

Francis has made the situation in Syria a top political and diplomatic priority since his election in March 2013.


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