VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis had lunch with 21 Syrian refugees at his private residence at the Vatican on Thursday (Aug. 11), sending a powerful message to those in the West fervently opposed to welcoming those forced to flee the war-torn nation.
The Vatican’s chief media spokesman, Greg Burke, said the pope’s lunch guests included the Syrian families who returned to Italy with him from the Greek island of Lesbos aboard the papal plane after his official visit there in April.
Nine of the pope’s guests were children.
“Both the adults and the children had the chance to speak with Pope Francis about the start of their life in Italy,” Burke said.
“The children gave him a collection of their drawings, and the pope reciprocated with toys and other gifts,” he said.
One of the boys, 8-year-old Qudus, sang a song for the pope while the children gave him drawings depicting the horrors of the war they left behind in Syria and also their hopes for their new life in Italy, according to the St. Egidio Community, which is helping to resettle the refugees.
In one of the drawings, a child depicted the pope as a butterfly because, as one of the Syrians said, “he helped us flee the war to come here.”
The meeting was like an informal family function as the children played inside the pope’s residence in the Santa Marta guesthouse where the pope lives, even exploring as far as the kitchen, while the Syrian adults told Francis about their new life in Italy and how they were learning the language and taking their children to school.
Among the Syrian migrants who dined with Francis were the first group who came to Rome on the papal flight on April 16 and a second group who arrived in Italy in mid-June.
The pope made headlines when he brought the first group of 12 refugees to Rome, all Syrian Muslims who faced deportation from Lesbos.
After emotional encounters with many migrants on the island, the pope said at the time: “I am here to tell you, you are not alone.
“We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.”
Thursday’s lunch is another reminder of how strongly the pontiff feels about bringing an end to the five-year Syrian conflict and the need to support the 5 million Syrians who have been forced to flee their homeland.
Last Sunday the pope used his Angelus address to again speak about Syria, saying it was “unacceptable” that so many unarmed people including children had to “pay the price of the conflict.”
“News of victims of civil war continues to arrive from Syria, in particular from Aleppo,” he said.
Aleppo has been at the center of fierce conflict between government forces and rebels in recent weeks, and Syrian doctors in the rebel-held east of the city have appealed to President Obama to come to the aid of the 250,000 civilians trapped there.
The Catholic charity Caritas International said in a statement Thursday: “The two million inhabitants of Aleppo are living in fear as the battle unfolds.”
Caritas said people were no longer safe in Aleppo and its staff there had met with 150 families who had been forced to flee their homes and live on the streets.
“Families have gone without running water for days,” Caritas said. “The food stock is decreasing drastically. Most of the children were hungry. Their parents are unable to buy food.”
(Josephine McKenna covers the Vatican for RNS)