ROME — Pope Francis rejected the branding of foreigners and poor people as enemies as he honored volunteers Sunday with a Catholic lay organization that helps Syrian war refugees reach Europe.
The pontiff spent the afternoon with the Sant’Egidio Community, which has mediated peace accords in Africa and helped war refugees make it to Italy safely. The organization is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding.
“Since your community was born, the world has become global,” the pope said while addressing Sant’Egidio volunteers in the ancient Santa Maria in Trastevere Basilica, where the community has sheltered the homeless on especially cold nights.
“But for many people, especially the poor, new walls have been lifted,” Francis said. “Diversity is an occasion for animosity and conflict. A globalization of solidarity and of the spirit still awaits to be built.”
The Sant’Egidio Community helped broker a peace deal to end fighting in Mozambique during the 1990s and has worked to foster national reconciliation in the Central African Republic, Guinea Conakry, Libya and Niger.
It has taken to heart the pope’s urging to assist refugees, arranging for airplane flights to bring Syria war refugees on “humanitarian corridors” to Italy.
A Syrian Palestinian who was on the first such flight and now is 15-years-old told the pope about his family’s suffering, first in Syria, then in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Identified only by his first name, Jafar, he recounted how “when I think of Syria, one word comes to mind: peace.” He and the pontiff then embraced.
Francis also listened to Giovanna La Vecchia, who at 80-years-old is a year younger than the pope.
She said she refused to feel useless in a society that doesn’t pay much attention to the elderly. La Vecchia volunteers to visit those in prison and help newly arrived refugees learn Italian.
“Here there is a generosity and open heart for everyone, without distinguishing,” Francis told the volunteers.
During his 5-year-old papacy, Francis has encouraged regular citizens and world leaders to welcome newcomers and to pay attention to those already on the margins of their own societies. His stance has contrasted with the shifting political tides in Europe and in the United States.
Francis described the world as one “often inhabited by fear.”
“Our time faces great fear as it faces the vast dimensions of globalization,” he said. “And fear often turns against people who are foreign, different, poor, as if they were enemies.”
Frances D’Emilio is on twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio