At a time when the international community continues to grapple with the civil war in Syria, 100,000 faithful joined Pope Francis on Sept. 7 at St. Peter’s Square in Rome — with countless others joining along at home — for a day of prayer and fasting for peace.
The Syrian conflict has already claimed more than 100,000 lives since March 2011 and threatens to spark a regional war. According to recent AP reports, more than 2 million Syrians have been driven from their homes and pose a grave humanitarian problem to surrounding countries. Pope Francis called upon Catholics and all people of goodwill to join him in an intense four-hour vigil. In his homily, the pontiff did not specifically speak to the Syrian situation, but used biblical imagery to call upon the world’s leaders not to rupture the beauty and harmony of God’s creation with war, selfishness and violence.
“Can we get out of this spiral of sorrow and death? Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace?” he asked. “Invoking the help of God, under the maternal gaze of the Salus Populi Romani, Queen of Peace, I say: ‘Yes, it is possible for everyone! From every corner of the world tonight, I would like to hear us cry out: Yes, it is possible for everyone!’”
Outside of Rome, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem held a holy hour at the Basilica of Gethsemane, just outside of Jerusalem, to pray for peace in the Middle East. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., celebrated a special Mass for Peace and Justice at the Basilica of the National Shine of the Immaculate Conception, and other dioceses and parishes across the globe marked the day with Masses, prayer vigils and adoration.
Calls for dialogue
The day of fasting and prayer punctuated calls by the Holy See and other Church leaders for a negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war and a halt to possible strikes against the government of Bashar Assad by the United States. The Assad regime has been accused of using chemical weapons against the rebel forces and civilians in an Aug. 21 attack that killed 1,429 people — including 426 children — in a suburb of Damascus.
Amplifying Church voices in the Middle East, the Vatican has made pleas from the beginning of the strife in Syria for an end to the violence, renewed dialogue among the warring parties, maintaining Syria’s unity and territorial integrity and protection for the country’s minorities, especially the Christians who comprise some 10 percent of the population of 22.5 million. Most Syrian Christians are Greek Orthodox, along with members of the Assyrian Church of the East and around 420,000 Catholics. Ironically, the Christian population has increased over the last years as Christians fled the bloodshed and persecution in Iraq for what was believed to be a safe haven in Syria.
Pope Francis has been particularly vocal in opposing potential plans of President Barack Obama’s administration to strike against the Assad regime. On Sept. 5, the pope sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, chair of the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the start of the gathering.
The letter implored “a renewed commitment to seek, with courage and determination, a peaceful solution through dialogue and negotiation of the parties, unanimously supported by the international community.”
The leaders left the meeting undecided as to the next steps to take in the crisis. But as of press time Sept. 10, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said in a statement, according to Russian news agency Interfax, that Syria is willing to agree to a Russian-backed initiative and disclose the location of its chemical weapons, as well as halt production and place the remainder under international control.
In response, President Obama asked Senate Democrats to delay their vote on whether or not to take military action as diplomatic channels are worked.
Prior to Sept. 10, the Obama administration worked aggressively to secure congressional approval for military action. A Sept. 9 CNN poll found that only 43 percent of Americans favor U.S. military action in Syria; 55 percent are opposed, with 2 percent unsure.
Threats to Christians
Papal opposition to military action by the West is distinctly reminiscent of the effort by the Vatican and Pope Blessed John Paul II to halt the invasion of Iraq by a coalition headed by the United States in 2003. The subsequent agony faced by the Iraqi people is used by Vatican diplomats to point to the unexpected problems that can arise from such interventions.
One of the greatest concerns for Church officials is that Syrian Christians will face the same catastrophe that has struck in Iraq and Egypt — brutal violence against the traditional Christian populations and the further flight of Christians out of the Middle East. A century ago, Christians comprised some 20 percent of the population in the Middle East. Today, they make up less than 5 percent.
Since the start of the Syrian civil war, Christian villages have been attacked and burned, and more than 300 Christians have been killed, mostly by rebel forces. Emblematic of the situation was the kidnapping in April of two Orthodox bishops, Syriac Orthodox bishop of Aleppo, Youhanna Ibrahim and the Greek Orthodox metropolitan of Aleppo and Iskenderun, Boulos al-Yaziji, while they were driving to Aleppo. Their driver was shot to death, and their fate remains unknown.
Priests have also been targeted, including Jesuit Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, who disappeared July 29 and whose fate remains unknown, and Father François Murad, 49, who was shot to death June 23 in the town of Gassanieh. Father Murad was reportedly killed by members of Jabhat al-Nusra, a militant Islamic group of the rebel alliance with reported ties to al-Qaida. Elements of that group also attacked the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, in western Syria this month.
Gregory III Laham, Patriarch of Antioch of the East, of Alexandria and Jerusalem of the Melkites, told Asia News, “We must listen to the pope’s appeal for peace in Syria. If western countries want to create true democracy then they must build it on reconciliation, through dialogue between Christians and Muslims, not with weapons.”
Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.