Skip to main content

Pope Francis says 'world at war', but religion is not cause

Slaying of Father Jacques Hamel by Islamic State followers dominates Pope Francis’s trip to Poland for World Youth Day
Pope Francis arrives for a welcoming ceremony at Wawel castle in Krakow on Wednesday. (AFP)

Pope Francis said on Wednesday the world is at war but argued that religion is not the cause, as he arrived in Poland a day after Islamic State(IS) group-inspired attackers murdered a Catholic priest in France.

In his first speech after touching down in the city of Krakow, the pontiff said the way to "overcome fear" was to welcome people fleeing conflict and hardship.

Opening doors to migrants demands "great wisdom and compassion" he said, chastising a rightwing government that has refused to share the burden during Europe's worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

"We must not be afraid to say the truth, the world is at war because it has lost peace," the pontiff told journalists on the flight out from Rome.

"When I speak of war I speak of wars over interests, money, resources, not religion. All religions want peace, it's the others who want war."

The brutal killing of the elderly priest Father Jacques Hamel  during mass in France on Tuesday, in an attack claimed by IS, has cast a shadow over Francis's trip to headline World Youth Day, a gathering of young Catholics from across the globe.

"This holy priest who died in the moment of offering prayers for the church is one (victim). But how many Christians, innocents, children?" Francis said.

Insecurity, war

"The word we hear a lot is insecurity, but the real word is war. The world has been in a fragmented war for some time. There was the one in 14, one in 39-45 and now this," he said, referring to the First and Second World War.

A string of militant attacks targeting civilians in Europe appears to have dampened turnout for the World Youth Day festival, a week-long faith extravaganza dubbed "the Catholic Woodstock".

Flag-waving crowds of youngsters nonetheless turned out in force to cheer on the pope as he sped to the Wawel Royal Castle in his open-top popemobile, defying security fears.

"It's an incredible experience," said one Krakow resident who gave her name as Danuta.

"I greeted Pope John Paul II on all his trips here and Pope Benedict too," she said.

The pope's comments came as French President Francois Hollande sought to head off religious tensions after the murder of the Catholic priest, while his government tried to fend off criticism over security failings.

Hollande met top religious leaders on Wednesday as a violence-weary France mourned Tuesday's attack, which came less than two weeks after a truck ploughed through a crowd enjoying a Bastille Day fireworks display, killing 84 people in the southern city of Nice.

In a boost for the embattled government, a police internal affairs probe said the security contingent on the night of the Nice attack was "not undersized".

Love, peace, prayer

The string of attacks in France and Germany has complicated Francis's aim to champion migrants, while emboldening Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and her rightwing government who have refused to take in refugees for security reasons.

Hamel’s murder has added to security fears surrounding the pope’s visit to Poland, which were already high amid numerous violent attacks in France and Germany. French flags are flying in the Polish capital, which is on high alert, with police deploying 40,000 personnel for the visit. Authorities also charged an Iraqi man on Monday with possessing trace amounts of explosive material.

Churches across Europe have said they will remain open to all despite the murder. Anti-terrorism police in the UK have warned churches to be on alert, while saying they have no specific intelligence relating to attacks on Christians.

"World Youth Day is a great celebration and we hope the attack in France will not ruin it," said Marcin Przeciszewski, head of Catholic Information Agency KAI, as worshippers gathered on Tuesday to pray for the fallen French priest.

"The best answer to violence is love, peace and prayer," said French pilgrim Pierre Darme.

The pope, 79, will likely have to work overtime to win hearts and minds in the homeland of Polish Pope John Paul II.

The charismatic saint, hailed for his role in toppling Communism, sponsored conservative Catholic movements - a legacy that sits uncomfortably with the Argentine pontiff's attempts to nurture a more flexible, compassionate Church.

"Polish Catholics probably aren't going to be welcoming the pope they really want, but given their current social and political situation, they may be getting exactly the one they need," Vatican expert John Allen wrote on the Cruxnow.com website.

An off-the-record meeting with Polish church leaders will give the pontiff a chance to call on dissident bishops to reconsider their attitudes.

At the heart of the visit will be a meeting with Holocaust survivors at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz, where Francis will pray for the camp's 1.1 million mostly Jewish victims, before the five-day trip winds up with the customary papal vigil and mass.