ASSISI, Italy — Pope Francis met with war refugees and religious figures on Tuesday in Assisi, the Italian hometown of the tolerance-preaching St. Francis, for a day of prayers for peace, openness toward refugees and calls for religions to marginalize fundamentalism.
He 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.
Orthodox leader Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, exhorted fellow participants to work to isolate fundamentalisms, which threaten “our very coexistence,” from their religions.
A Muslim speaker, Din Syamsuddin, president of the Indonesian Council of Ulema, lamented that lack of peace in the world is expressed in injustice, terrorism and other evils, and that some groups use the name of Islam to carry out violent acts.
Francis told participants: “Peace alone is holy, not war!”
Later, 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, Ukraine and Mindanao in the Philippines.
Participants signed an appeal to the world’s leaders to eliminate the “motives” of war such as greed for power and money, including in the arms business, and the thirst for vengeance.
Earlier, after chatting individually with each of dozens of participants, Francis dined with them in the Franciscan convent. The diners included 12 refugees from war and conflicts in Nigeria, Eritrea, Mali and Syria.
At the end of the day, an Armenian woman from the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo addressed the participants. Tamara Mikalli said that when she pronounces the name of her city her “heart tightens.” She recounted that she fled with her family to Lebanon after their house was bombed and reached Italy thanks to a “humanitarian corridor” that saw Syrian refugees flown from Lebanon.
Another woman, from Eritrea, identified only as Enes, recounted that during 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.
Still another participant in Assisi was a young girl, identified only as Kudus, who had already met the pope. She was one of 12 Syrian refugees who flew to Italy with the pontiff from Lesbos, the Greek island where thousands of refugees landed after fleeing across the Mediterranean on smugglers’ boats.
Christians, including the pope, prayed in the basilica, 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.”
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.
Frances D’Emilio reported from Rome.