Pope Francis put the survivors of Islamic State persecution at the top of a list of the people for whom he invoked peace in his traditional Christmas message, Urbi et Orbi – to the city [of Rome] and the world.
Without mentioning the organisation by name, the pope called on Jesus “to look upon our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria, who for too long now have suffered the effects of ongoing conflict and who, together with those belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, are suffering a brutal persecution”.
On Wednesday, the Francis had spoken by satellite telephone link to refugees in a camp at Ankawa near Erbil in northern Iraq. The refugees, many of them Christians, come from the Mosul and the Nineveh plains and have been at the camp since August.
He told them: “You are like Jesus on the night of his birth, when he was driven out. You are like Jesus in this situation and that makes [me] pray more for you.”
Addressing a large crowd from the loggia over the main entrance to St Peter’s basilica, Francis called on Jesus to “bestow his peace upon the whole Middle East, beginning with the land blessed by his birth”. He appealed for an end to violence in Ukraine and Nigeria “where more blood is being shed and too many people are unjustly deprived of their possessions, held as hostages or killed”.
And he called for an end to the fighting in several other African countries: Libya, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The pope also appealed to God to give comfort to the families of the children who were killed by the Pakistani Taliban at a school in the city of Peshawar last week.
His message followed an exceptionally eventful buildup to Christmas. In the past eight days, the Vatican’s role in the resumption of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US has been revealed; the pope has lambasted his own officials and in turn been criticised by one of the Catholic world’s most eminent commentators.
On Monday, Francis astonished members of the Roman Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, when he used an annual, pre-Christmas address to accuse them of suffering from “spiritual Alzheimer’s” and “existential schizophrenia” among several other things. His virulent attack was the clearest evidence so far of the opposition the reforming pope is encountering within the Vatican.
Two days later, in its last edition before Christmas, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, carried a commentary by Vittorio Messori, who in 1994 published a then-unprecedented book-length interview with Pope John Paul II. Headlined, “All my doubts about a turning point”, the article accused Francis of inconsistency.
It said he had “turned out to be unpredictable: so much so that he has made even some of the cardinals who were among his electors think again”. Messori implicitly questioned several of the pope’s actions.
One was a friendly telephone call to the historic leader of Italy’s Radical party, Marco Pannella, who Messori said had devoted his life to promoting “divorce, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality for all, gender theory and so on”. Another was the pope’s journey to see an old friend, a pastor of one of the Pentecostal churches that in Latin America are attracting large numbers of worshippers away from Catholicism.
But doubts about Francis found few echoes in St Peter’s square as thousands of Catholics and non-Catholics, pilgrims and tourists, waited for the pope to appear.
Monica Naveed, a Hindu from Bangalore, who is studying for a masters in information technology, said: “We know that he is a great person because of what he has done and we thought that to come to see him would be a great idea.”
For Domenico Guida, a 22-year-old fisherman from Manfredonia on the east coast of Italy, Francis was just “stupendous, marvellous – a pope with great charisma”. He particularly liked his “closeness to young people”.
Near the front of the crowd was someone who already had experience of the Argentinian pope. Juillermino Fahey said she was from a town in the province of Buenos Aires, so until last year the pope had been her archbishop.
What about all those accusations he had levelled at his highest officials? She smiled broadly as the band of the Pontifical State, gloriously decked out in their smoke blue uniforms came marching into the square.
“The sins of the church,” she said.