LA PAZ: Pope Francis demanded an immediate end Thursday to what he called “a genocide” of Christians taking place in the Middle East and beyond, describing it as a third world war.
“Today we are dismayed to see how in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world many of our brothers and sisters are persecuted, tortured and killed for their faith in Jesus,” Pope Francis said.
“In this third world war, waged piecemeal, which we are now experiencing, a form of genocide is taking place, and it must end.”
In September last year he lamented a rash of global conflicts, saying they were effectively a “piecemeal” third world war and condemning “terrorism.”
He has also in the past voiced grave concern about the dangers facing Christians around the world, including in Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State extremist group has overrun large areas in a brutal offensive of beheadings and forced conversions.
His latest remarks, at a so-called World Meeting of the Popular Movements in the city of Santa Cruz, came after he apologized for “offenses” committed by the Catholic Church against indigenous peoples during the colonial-era conquest of the Americas.
The first Latin American pope “humbly” begged forgiveness, during an encounter that included indigenous groups and other activists.
“I say this to you with regret,” he told an enchanted crowd. “Many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.”
When leftist Bolivian president Evo Morales on Thursday presented Pope Francis with a “communist crucifix” – a carving of Christ crucified on the hammer of a hammer and sickle – the Pope appeared to say, “This is not ok,” while shaking his head.
Shortly after his Wednesday at the Bolivian administrative capital of La Paz, Pope Francis made a courtesy visit to Morales at the Palace of Government. At such meetings, the leaders customarily exchange gifts; Pope Francis gave the Bolivian president a mosaic of the Marian icon of the “Salus Populus Romani,” her role as patroness of Rome.
Morales explained what his gift to the Pope was as he gave it to him. In the video, filmed by the Vatican Television Center and transmitted throughout the world, the Pope appears to be saying “No está bien eso” – “This is not ok” – while shaking his head.
While the audio is a bit marred by the clicking of journalists’ cameras, the embarrassment of the Pope seems clear.
The cross with a hammer and sickle is a reproduction of another carved during the 1970s by Fr. Luis Espinal Camps, a Spanish Jesuit who was a missionary in Bolivia who was killed in 1980 during the Bolivian dictatorship.
At a press briefing the Holy See press officer, Fr. Federico Lombardi, noted the lack of clarity in the audio of the exchange, and remarked that Pope Francis had been unaware the crucifix was a replica of Espinal’s.
He also claimed that Espinal’s use of it was not ideological but expressed a hope for dialogue between communism and the Church, adding that Pope Francis’ remark likely expressed a sentiment of “I didnt’ know”, rather than “This is not right.”
Morales’ gift has sparked a worldwide controversy, and reactions were not long in coming. The majority of them accuse Morales of trying to politicize the Pope’s visit.
Morales is head of Bolivia’s Movement for Socialism party, and his administration has focused on implementing leftist policies in the nation. Since coming to power in 2006, Morales has frequently sparred with the Bolivian bishops.
Catholics from various Hispanophone countries rejected Morales’ gesture, considering it offensive to the numerous victims of terrorist groups in Latin America and of the historical totalitarian communist regimes.
Bishop Jose Munilla Aguirre of San Sebastián, a Spaniard, tweeted: “The height of arrogance is to manipulate God in the service of atheistic ideologies … Today, once again: #ChristCrucified”.