Church Leaders Call for Negotiations in Syria as Obama Weighs Response to Chemical Weapons
Week of Prayer Begins Today
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A week of prayer for Syria began today. The texts of the prayers include the story of a 6-year-old Syrian girl who was playing hide-and-seek with her younger brother when the little boy was shot and killed. At the cemetery, before the boy's tomb, his sister cried out to him: "Come out from your hiding spot! I don't want to play anymore!"
Accounts such as this one, along with thousands of others, and photos, and now especially, the videos from what is presumed to have been an attack of chemical weapons, have the international community calling more urgently for a change in Syria after more than two years of conflict.
But as the United States and others consider plans for possible military intervention, Church leaders from Syria, and the Vatican as well, are reiterating the call for dialogue.
After Pope Francis met Thursday morning with the king and queen of Jordan, the Vatican's official communiqué regarding the meeting contained this line: "[In regard to the tragic situation in which Syria finds itself], it was reaffirmed that the path of dialogue and negotiation between all components of Syrian society, with the support of the international community, is the only option to put an end to the conflict and to the violence that every day causes the loss of so many human lives, especially amongst the helpless civilian population."
Caritas Internationalis today also said "peace talks" are the "only option" in Syria.
Spokesman Patrick Nicholson told ZENIT that the "international community has a responsibility to bring all sides to peace talks, to refrain from making the situation worse through military intervention, and to fund relief efforts both inside the country and for the refugees."
"We urgently need peace talks as the only option for an end to the tragedy in Syria," he said.
A statement from the aid agency recognized chemical weapons as a "horrific crime," saying the alleged use of the weapons in Damascus on Aug. 21 highlights "how catastrophic the humanitarian situation has become."
Caritas Internationalis Secretary-General Michel Roy said, “The Syrian people don’t need more bloodshed, they need a quick end to it. They need an immediate truce. Scaling up military intervention by foreign powers will simply widen the war and increase the suffering.
“The last decade bears witness to the tragic consequences of military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
“Caritas believes that the only humanitarian solution is a negotiated one. Dialogue can end the war in Syria, safeguard the lives of the people and build a viable future for everyone. The priority must be to reinvigorate talks in Geneva as the first step towards a ceasefire and a peace deal."
US President Barack Obama was speaking today of "limited and narrow" action in Syria, though he said the decisions are still being weighed. Over a year ago, the president said that the use of chemical weapons would call for a response.
The US bishops, however, echoed the Vatican's call for negotiations. In a letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry, the bishops quoted Pope Francis: "It is not conflict that offers prospects of hope for solving problems, but rather the capacity for encounter and dialogue."
The Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch has also said that in spite of the dire situation in Syria, reconciliation initiatives are still viable and should be the top priority for all countries concerned with the crisis.
Gregorios III of Damascus said this Tuesday in an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. The UK Houses of Parliament on Thursday heard the Patriarch's appeal, as Baroness Caroline Cox of Queensbury quoted him, saying that armed intervention by the West in Syria would only fuel violence and unrest.
The Parliament on Thursday voted against possible missile strikes.
In the Tuesday interview, Patriarch Gregorios expressed his doubts about being able to determine who was behind the chemical weapons attack of Aug. 21.
He also criticized US policy with Syria: "You should not accuse the government one day and then accuse the opposition the next. That is how you fuel violence and hatred.”
“The Americans have been fueling the situation for two years," he declared.
He condemned as immoral the flow of arms into the country.
"Many people are coming from outside Syria to fight in the country. These fighters are fueling fundamentalism and Islamism," the patriarch stated. "It is time to finish with these weapons and, instead of calling for violence, international powers need to work for peace."
In a statement Wednesday, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, asked "by what authority" the US would launch a strike on Syria.
"Is there a need to increase the number of deaths, now over 100,000?" Patriarch Twal said.
The patriarch also warned of the consequences of a possible attack on the entire region.
"According to observers, the attacks should be specifically targeted and concentrated on a few strategic sites in order to prevent further use of chemical weapons," he said. "We know from experience that a targeted attack will have collateral consequences -- in particular, strong reactions that could ignite the region."
These were concerns also expressed by Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, who is also president of Caritas Syria.
“The only road to peace is dialogue," he said. “War will not take us anywhere.”
Power and faith
Even with strong voices calling for negotiations, the direness of the situation can hardly be underestimated.
The Caritas Internationalis spokesman suggested to ZENIT that the only way to bring those involved to a point where they can negotiate without violence, is prayer.
"Prayer, as Pope Francis has encouraged," he said. "But also it must be made clear to those inside Syria and their allies outside the country that the violence must end. That means stopping more weapons going into Syria, an immediate ceasefire and pressure being put on all sides of the conflict to negotiate peace. The clear message from ordinary Syrians is that they want peace and an immediate end to this conflict. As one of our Caritas staff inside Syria said to us, 'Against this dark tableau, civil society is leading a secret resistance. We are fighting against the hardships and violence in silence and with dignity.' We must stand in solidarity with them."
In that light, those doing the most to help Syria might be the people who started the week of prayer today, and others such as residents at the Monastery of St. James in Qarah (a city between Damascus and Homs). The ecumenical community of that monastery is dedicated to prayer; their leader, Fr. Daniel Maes, told Fides that, "aware of the power of prayer and faith in the Providence of God," the priests and nuns will have all night Eucharistic Adoration.
[Ann Schneible contributed to this report]