.- The head of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church encouraged Syria's Eastern Catholics to offer prayers for peace during their church's traditional August 1–14 fasting period in honor of the Virgin Mary.
During the run-up to the August 15 feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God (known in the West as the Assumption), Melkite Catholics will be “praying especially for the safety of all Syrians and for the cessation of the violence,” Patriarch Gregorios III said in a letter marking the two-week fast.
“We pray too during this period for the return of charity, friendship, fellowship and compassion among all citizens,” wrote the patriarch, whose headquarters are located in the Syrian capital Damascus.
He called for liturgical services to be supplemented with “special litanies for peace and reconciliation,” and for the faithful “to participate in these services, with fasting, prayer and repentance.”
Syrians, he said, “ are still capable of loving and forgiving each other, being reconciled and showing tolerance to one another … United together, they can rebuild what has been destroyed and work for development and prosperity, for a better future for all citizens.”
The patriarch's prayer is for “a renewed, free, secure, conciliatory Syria, in which citizens regardless of group, party, religion or affiliation can enjoy freedom, dignity, employment and education.”
In recent weeks, fighting has escalated in the country's capital Damascus and in the commercial capital Aleppo. The battles have brought shortages of food, water, and fuel, causing an estimated 400,000 people to flee their homes.
Violence was reported in both cities, as well as the city of Hama, on Aug. 3. It followed former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan's Aug. 2 announcement that he was leaving his peacemaking position as a special envoy to the country, after attempts to broker a truce between rebels and government forces.
The Melkite Greek Catholic Church, one of the largest Eastern churches in union with Rome, is working to help Syrian refugees in association with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
In his letter marking the Dormition Fast, Patriarch Gregorios pointed out that the ancient Christian fast partly overlapped this year with the Muslim celebration of Ramadan. The Islamic fast began July 20 this year, and will run until Aug. 18.
“Once again Christians and Muslims are fasting and praying at the same time,” the patriarch wrote. “That is one of the most beautiful marks and signs of their living together in solidarity.”
As he wished all of his faithful a holy fast, the Patriarch summed up his hope with words drawn from an ancient Byzantine prayer.
“O Lord, save thy people and bless thine inheritance. Grant peace to thy world! Grant peace to Syria! By thy Cross, preserve thy people!”