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ROME - Pope Francis addressed diplomats at the Vatican and urged the United States and Iran to avoid an escalation of the current crisis. In his annual "State of the World" speech, the pope urged the U.S. and Iran to pursue "dialogue and self-restraint" to avoid a wider conflict in the Middle East. He also spoke of his concern for the situations in Syria, Yemen and Libya.
As is custom at the start of the year, Pope Francis addressed ambassadors accredited to the Vatican. He offered a somber overview of the past year and expressed his concerns for the future. Speaking in the frescoed Sala Regia inside the Vatican, the pope said, "Sadly the new year does not seem to be marked by encouraging signs, as much as by heightened tensions and acts of violence."
He also said, "Our human family is scarred and wounded by a succession of increasingly destructive wars that especially affect the poor and those most vulnerable."
Particularly troubling are the signals coming from the entire Middle East region, the pope said, following the heightening of tensions between Iran and the United States. Pope Francis said the tensions risk "compromising the gradual process of rebuilding in Iraq, as well as setting the groundwork for a wider conflict that all of us would want to avert."
The pontiff was alluding to the recent targeted killing in Iraq of Iran's top general, Qassem Soleimani, by the United States. Iran responded by firing missiles at two military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq.
The pope renewed his appeal that "all the interested parties avoid an escalation of the conflict and keep alive the flame of dialogue and self-restraint, in full respect of international law."
Francis has been hoping to visit Iraq for some time and he has said that his visit would take place in 2020 but the latest tension could make it difficult for such a trip to take place, mainly for security reasons.
The pope said, "A more steadfast and effective engagement on the part of the international community is most urgent in other parts of the Mediterranean area and in the Middle East." He mentioned "the pall of silence" he said risks falling over the war that has devastated Syria over the course of the last decade.
The pope said, "It is imperative to devise suitable and far-sighted solutions capable of enabling the beloved Syrian people, exhausted by war, to regain peace and to begin the reconstruction of the country."
Pope Francis also spoke about Yemen, which, he said, "is experiencing one of the most serious humanitarian crises of recent history amid general indifference on the part of the international community." Turning then to Libya, he said that country has seen a further intensification of violence recently and for many years has "experienced a situation of conflict " aggravated by incursions of extremist groups.
The pope said the situation in Libya "provides fertile terrain for the scourge of exploitation and human trafficking, carried out by unscrupulous persons who exploit the poverty and suffering of those fleeing situations of conflict or of extreme poverty." Many, he added, fall prey to genuinely criminal organizations that imprison them in inhumane and degrading conditions and subject them to torture, sexual violence and forms of extortion.
Pope Francis said, "Thousands of persons present legitimate requests for asylum, and have verifiable humanitarian needs and a need for protection that are not adequately identified." He added many are risking their lives in perilous journeys by land and by sea and reiterated that "the Mediterranean Sea continues to be a vast cemetery."