ASSISI, Italy – Pope Francis met with war refugees and religious figures on Tuesday in Assisi, the hometown of the tolerance-preaching St. Francis, for a day of prayers for peace and pleas for more attention to victims of conflicts worldwide.
Speaking about victims of war, Pope Francis lamented in a prayer service in St. Francis Basilica that refugees from conflicts often receive “the bitter vinegar of rejection.”
“Who listens to them? Who bothers responding to them?” Francis said. “Far too often, they encounter the deafening silence of indifference, the selfishness of those annoyed at being pestered, the coldness of those who silence their cry for help with the same ease with which television channels are changed.”
Throughout his papacy, Francis has decried those who turn their backs on those fleeing wars and poverty.
After his speech, the names of countries where war or other violence is raging were read aloud, in alphabetical order, with a tall, slender candle lit for each place. Places cited included Syria, Yemen, Nigeria, Mexico plagued with drug traffickers’ violence, Ukraine and Mindanao in the Philippines.
Earlier, after chatting individually with each of dozens of participants, Francis dined with them in the Franciscan convent. The guests included 12 refugees who fled war and conflicts in Nigeria, Eritrea, Mali and Syria, which was represented by three Christians who fled the besieged city of Aleppo.
In the day’s closing ceremony, an Armenian woman from Aleppo, Tamara Mikalli, addressed the participants, saying that when she pronounces the name of her city, “my heart tightens.” She recounted that she fled the city with her family to Lebanon after their house was bombed. She reached Italy thanks to a “humanitarian corridor” that saw Syrian refugees flown from Lebanon.
Another woman, from Eritrea, identified only as Enes, recounted that at lunch the pope asked each of the refugees how they reached Italy.
“I told him I made a voyage in boat, navigating in the Mediterranean after crossing the desert,” the Italian news agency quoted her as saying.
Christians, including the pope, prayed in the Basilica of St. Francis, while those from other religions, including Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others, prayed elsewhere in the town. For centuries, Assisi has drawn admirers of the saint who abandoned family wealth for an austere existence of preaching tolerance.
Flanking the pope in the basilica was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who decried how despite much wealth, people in Europe experience “dissatisfaction and despair, in the breakdown of families, in hunger and inequality, in turning to extremists.” He noted fear, anger and resentment prompts some to take to “fearing the stranger.”
Earlier this week, Pope Francis urged people worldwide to pray on Tuesday for peace, whenever they could.
Francis took his papal name from the saint who was born in the Umbrian hill town, where Franciscans from the religious order founded by the medieval saint care for the basilica and its renowned artworks. St. John Paul II established the inter-religious prayer gathering in Assisi in 1986.
He has also pressed for countries and individuals to welcome refugees. As an example, he flew Syrian civil war refugees back to Rome with him after his visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, where thousands of those fleeing fighting and poverty had set foot in Europe after risky journeys in smugglers’ boats.
Among those dining with Francis in Assisi was a 23-year-old man from Mali, who survived a voyage on a fishing boat from Libya, where human smugglers are based, to Sicily.