Two bishops have written to Secretary of State John Kerry urging that the United States work to end the Syrian civil war and promote humanitarian assistance to the country.
“The reported use of chemical weapons, the UN estimate of over 93,000 deaths, the displacement of millions from their homes, and the kidnapping of two Orthodox archbishops on a mission of mercy all point to the devastation of the violent conflict in Syria and the urgent need for a negotiated ceasefire and political solution,” said Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines and Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson in a June 19 letter.
Bishop Kicanas is chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services and Bishop Pates is chair of the U.S. bishops' conference Committee on International Justice and Peace.
The Syrian conflict has dragged on for 26 months, since demonstrations sprang up nationwide on March 15, 2011 protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president and leader the country's Ba'ath Party.
In April of that year, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters. Since then, the violence has morphed into a civil war which has claimed the lives of more than 93,000 people.
There are 1.5 million Syrian refugees in nearby countries, most of them in Jordan and Lebanon.
An additional 4.25 million Syrian people are believed to have been internally displaced by the war.
The conflict has resulted in human rights abuses against ethnic and religious minority groups, as well as the repression of the freedoms of speech and assembly for Syrian citizens. International governments have also found evidence indicating the use of chemical weapons, specifically sarin gas, by the government against rebel targets.
The bishops appealed to messages by Pope Francis which called for peace and the negotiation of a cease-fire.
“We again echo the Holy Father’s poignant question: How much more suffering must Syrians endure before a political solution is found?”
They supported Kerry’s plans to hold an upcoming peace summit in Geneva, saying that they “stand ready to help in any way we can.”
However, Bishops Kicanas and Pates remained critical of recent vows by the U.S. government to arm the Syrian rebels.
In light of the determination by the U.S. and French governments that the Syrian regime has used chemical agents against opposition targets, President Obama has pledged arms assistance for rebel fighters.
“Instead of arming both sides,” the bishops wrote, “the international community should be emphasizing the need for a negotiated solution to the conflict. The introduction of more arms simply increases the lethality of the violence and contributes to the suffering of the Syrian people.”
Instead of increased armament, the bishops urged that the Syrian people “need a political solution that ends the fighting and creates a future for all Syrians, one that respects human rights and religious freedom.”
“We ask the United States to work with other governments to obtain a ceasefire, initiate serious negotiations, provide impartial and neutral humanitarian assistance, and encourage building an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, including Christians and other minorities.”