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Cease all violence, Pope tells Syrians

21 September 2012


"Grim trail": above: a house on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, which was hit during an air strike by government forces on Saturday. 

"Grim trail": above: a house on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, which was hit during an air strike by government forces on Saturday. 

POPE Benedict XVI, during a three-day visit to Lebanon last weekend, led prayers for peace in Syria and the neighbouring states, which are increasingly feeling the pressure of the crisis there. He also urged Arab Christians to remain in the region, assuring them of the support of the universal Church.

In Syria itself, there are more signs that the minority Christian community is facing a particular range of challenges, not least the perception in the eyes of elements within the Free Syria Army (FSA) that Christians are loyalists of the Assad regime.

The Barnabas Fund, which champions the rights of Christian minorities worldwide, has received a report from a church leader in Aleppo. He said that his community was "facing tough times. The economy is very, very bad. We have shortages of bread, food, medicine, kids' milk . . . no fuel for cars, nor gas for cooking." Food prices in Syria are five times higher than before the crisis, and there are worsening water shortages.

Thousands of Syrian Christians have fled into Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and are facing uncertain futures and growing financial difficulties. Some have paid large sums of money to people-traffickers to try to secure a route into Greece, in the hope of making their way to other European states.

But for those who have chosen to remain, the options are dwindling, as they watch the FSA challenge the forces of the Assad regime with growing ferocity and success. According to reports coming out of Syria, some FSA units have been acting in an abusive and violent way towards Christians.

This, The Daily Telegraph reported last week, has prompted some Christians in Aleppo to accept arms from the Syrian government and join Armenians in seeking to protect their areas of the city from opposition incursions.

The newspaper quoted one Armenian Christian as saying: "Everybody is fighting everybody." The Shabiha, the militia operated by the Assad regime, were in Aleppo "to kill and rape".

A Saudi-financed satellite television station, al-Arabiya, broadcast on Wednesday a video recording that had been posted on the internet by an opposition group calling itself the Ansar Allah Brigade, operating in the countryside close to Damascus.

The brigade claimed to be the first Christian armed group. It called on all Syrians to love and forgive each other, and said that its supporters would stay away from church until after the fall of the Assad regime.

The crisis in Syria was clearly at the forefront of Pope Benedict's mind during his stay in neighbouring Lebanon. In his homily during a mass celebrated on the Beirut seafront last Sunday, he said: "May God grant to your country, to Syria, and to the Middle East the gift of peaceful hearts, the silencing of weapons, and the cessation of all violence."

In conflicts such as Syria's, he said, "the first victims are women and children. Why so much horror? Why so many dead? I appeal to the international community. I appeal to the Arab countries that, as brothers, they might propose workable solutions respecting the dignity, the rights, and the religion of every human person."

At the same time, the Pope urged Christian minorities in the Middle East to stay put and seek reconciliation with their Muslim compatriots. He assured them that they could count on the spiritual support of Christians around the world.

On his departure from Beirut, he expressed his appreciation for the welcome that he had received from the Muslim community, and acknowledged "how much your presence contributed to the success of my voyage.

"The Arab world and the whole world will have seen Christians and Muslims united in this troubled time to celebrate peace."


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