Church leaders appeal for talks to prevent Syrian civil war
By Benjamin Mann
Fr. Pierrebattista Pizzaballa
Fr. Pierrebattista Pizzaballa

.- Catholic leaders have called for negotiations to prevent a civil war in Syria, where the conflict between government supporters and opponents is being compared to last year's fight for control of Libya.

“Everybody is suffering in Syria because there is violence coming from every side,” Maronite Archbishop Paul N. El-Sayeh of Antioch told the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need in remarks released Feb. 20. 

“It is a desperate situation,” the Beirut-based Lebanese archbishop said of the violence taking place across the border in Syria. “I wish everyone would sit down and negotiate. Problems cannot be solved by violence.”

Archbishop El-Sayeh's hope for peace in Syria is shared by Pope Benedict XVI, who renewed his appeal for Syrians “to put an end to violence and bloodshed” in a recent Angelus address. The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land has also voiced its concern for the country in recent days.

But there were few signs of any lasting peace on Feb. 20, as the Syrian military advanced on regime opponents in the city of Homs. The mobilization comes one week before a scheduled vote on a new constitution that could give more freedom to rivals of President Bashar al-Assad.

Sources told the Associated Press that Homs' Baba Amr distinct has been nicknamed “Syria's Misrata,” a reference to the Libyan city that became a central battleground during that country's 2011 civil war.

At least 5,400 Syrians have died since the movement against President al-Assad began in March 2011, according to U.N. figures released in January 2012. The regime's crackdown against protesters failed to break their resistance, and international observers are now warning of a civil war.

In his Feb. 12 Sunday Angelus message, Pope Benedict XVI said he was “following with great concern the dramatic and growing incidents of violence in Syria,” while praying for the dead, the wounded, and “all those who suffer the consequences of an increasingly worrying conflict.”

On that occasion, the Pope invited “everyone – and above all the political authorities in Syria – to favor dialogue, reconciliation and a commitment to peace.” He said it was “urgent to respond to the legitimate aspirations” of Syrians, as well as concerns of the international community.

Pope Benedict's message was followed on Feb. 16 by an appeal from Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custos of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, on behalf of the Church in Syria.

“In these months of great tension, when Syria is being torn apart by internal clashes, and where the conflict seems to be assuming more and more the form of a civil war, the Franciscans … are committed to supporting the local Christian population,” wrote the superior of the Franciscans in the Middle East.

The custos noted that Franciscan monasteries' medical facilities have become places of refuge for all Syrians, “regardless of whether they are Alawite, Sunni, Christian, rebels or government-supporters.”

During Libya's 2011 civil war, Franciscans played an important role in maintaining the life of the local Church. As he appealed for material support from the faithful around the world, Fr. Pizzaballa indicated that St. Francis' order was committed to Syria with the same spirit of solidarity.

“To be with the people, to accept and assist those in need, regardless of race, religion and nationality; to guarantee, through its confident presence, religious services to the faithful because they understand the importance of remaining in one’s own country – this remains the sense of the Franciscan mission.”

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