VATICAN CITY, July 22 (Reuters) - Pope Francis has expressed concern for the humanitarian situation in northwestern Syria and urged a negotiated end to years of fighting, in a letter delivered on Monday to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Vatican said the letter was handed over by Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, who heads the Vatican department for promoting human development.
The letter called for the safe return of millions displaced by years of fighting, the humane treatment of political prisoners and the resumption of negotiations to seek a political solution to the conflict.
"At the heart of this new initiative lies Pope Francis' and the Holy See's concern for the emergency humanitarian situation in Syria, in particular in Idlib Province," Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said in a statement.
Idlib is the last rebel-held region in Syria and remains under the control mostly of Islamist militants, who are under growing pressure from Syrian government forces backed by Iran and Russia.
Syrian state news agency SANA reported that Assad had told Turkson it was important to put pressure on countries supporting terrorists, a term Damascus uses to describe the rebels seeking his downfall.
Syria's war, now in its ninth year, grew out of popular protests against Assad, devastating many towns and cities. An estimated half a million people have died in the fighting.
More than 5.6 million Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt and 6.6 million have been displaced within its borders.
"In the letter sent to President Assad, the Holy Father encourages him to show good will and to work towards finding viable solutions, putting an end to a conflict which has lasted far too long and which has led to the loss of numerous innocent lives," said Cardinal Parolin. (Reporting by Francesco Guarascio and Crispian Balmer; editing by Kevin Liffey, Larry King)
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