.- Pope Benedict XVI has urged Russia and Georgia to end hostilities immediately and begin negotiations, appealing to their “common Christian heritage.”
Catholic charities, meanwhile, are trying to address the refugee crisis provoked by the new conflict.
Conflict over the breakaway province of South Ossetia escalated into military action last week.
Speaking in his Angelus message on Sunday from the northern Italian town of Bressanone where he was vacationing, the Pope noted the “tragic events” taking place in Georgia, saying the military action had affected many innocent victims and forced many civilians to leave their homes.
Pope Benedict called for “an immediate end to military actions” and “in the name of the common Christian heritage” he asked the two nations to refrain from further confrontations that he said could “degenerate into a wider conflict.”
Pope Benedict exhorted the international community and influential countries to “make every effort to support and promote initiatives aimed at reaching a peaceful and lasting solution, in favor of an open and respectful coexistence.”
Before the main square of Bressanone where 9,000 had gathered, the Pope said Catholics were joining Orthodox Christians in prayers for peace.
“Together with our Orthodox brethren, let us pray intensely for these intentions, that we confidently entrust to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus and all Christians,” he said.
The Catholic charity Caritas Internationalis said that thousands have been killed and tens of thousands have been driven from their homes in just a few days of conflict. The charity is delivering food, household items, and counseling to those affected by the fighting, but has also voiced support for an immediate ceasefire.
Caritas Georgia is also trying to provide medical help to the numerous casualties, reporting that hospitals in the Georgian capital of Tblisi could be soon overwhelmed.
Liana Mkheidze, Caritas Georgia Program Manager, said providing food and medical help is a top priority.
“Many people are coming to Tblisi from Georgian villages around Tskinvali and then also from Gori. Their houses have been damaged and they’re escaping the bombardment,” she said, adding that Caritas Georgia has distributed over 1,900 cans of tuna fish, over 400 cans of canned meat, and 500 loaves of freshly baked bread from its own bakery.
Sergey Basiev, director of Caritas Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia, said providing shelter for refugees is their top priority.
“There are lots of refugees seeking shelter. They have nothing. The situation is dreadful. We will try to meet these urgent needs,” Basiev said.
Caritas Internationalis Secretary General Lesley-Anne Knight joined others in calling for a de-escalation of hostilities.
“Russia and Georgia must step back from all out war. Already the conflict has caused too much suffering to thousands of innocent civilians. It will take a huge regional effort to rebuild shattered communities,” Knight said.
“Caritas appeals to both sides to do everything in their power to respect the lives of civilians. Caritas supports the need for humanitarian corridors into South Ossetia as a short term solution, but peace talks must take place now.”
Knight also asked both sides to respect the rights of ethnic minorities to avoid “further escalation in the conflict.”