As the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian civil war approaches, the head of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church has called for a world day of prayer and fasting for peace in his country.

"Lent is a way of the cross, and we are in the fifth year of the way of the cross of our Arab countries, especially in Syria, Iraq and Palestine, but also in Lebanon, which is influenced in a dramatic way by the wars that have flared up around it," wrote Gregorios III, Melkite Greek Patriarch of Antioch and Bishop of Damascus, in a Feb. 24 letter.

Patriarch Gregorios' letter appealed for a world-wide day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria, to be observed March 15-16, 2015.

The Syrian conflict first began March 15, 2011, when demonstrations protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad and his Ba'ath Party sprang up nationwide. 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 220,000 people. There are 3.8 million Syrian refugees in nearby countries, most of them in Turkey and Lebanon, and an additional 8 million Syrian people are believed to have been internally displaced by the war.

The patriarch's prayer initiative is being supported by the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, which has given $6.6 million in aid since the civil war began.

"With the spread of the conflict into the neighbouring countries, the situation has become still more desperate, the more so since the interest on the part of the international community has clearly dwindled," Baron Johannes Heereman, executive president of Aid ot the Church in Need, said March 4. "That is why we are providing emergency aid for families in Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and other affected areas. We are helping to supply basic foodstuffs, medicines, primary medical care, financial help with rent for lodgings, heating and electricity. But money can only help to ease the suffering, not end the war."

Patriarch Gregorios wrote that "Our countries' Golgotha is very great: the greatest tragedy of the region's territories and even of the world since the Second World War. As bishops, our role is to be with our people, alongside our people, before our people, behind our people and in the service of our people. We want to wash the feet of those who suffer, as Jesus washed his disciples' feet. Yet we ask forgiveness from our faithful, because, despite our efforts, we are unable really to meet all their needs which are increasing on a daily basis."

"We are at a loss before the great pain and great suffering of our people in all its Christian and Muslim communities. This is tragedy and suffering on a global scale, which affects everyone. All have been affected by poverty, hunger, cold, lack of clothing, illness, sufferings and disability. The great majority of our faithful suffer from all that, especially in Syria. All are equal now in this kind of suffering."

The patriarch lamented the vast numbers of Melkite Catholics leaving Syria, urging "everyone to stay, to be patient, strong, always to hope and to hang on to hope, faith and trust in God's will … we, as pastors are staying with all those who are staying, and are serving them wholeheartedly and with all our strength. We are making continuous efforts to help everyone, by all means at our disposal."

He thanked Pope Francis for his prayers for and solidarity with the people of Syria, "and also for his material assistance through the Roman dicasteries and the various organisations related to the Vatican."

Patriarch Gregorios welcomed the news of the return of some faithful to their homes, including at Ma'loula, Al-Qusayr, and Homs, and at the rebuilding of homes and churches in these towns and in Al-Nabek and Yabrud.

He added, "We are also glad about the compensation given by the State and for the aid of our faithful and we also thank all the international institutions and our friends who are helping us in this direction."

"From the very depths of our suffering and pain in Syria we cry out with our suffering people, who are walking on the bloody way of the cross, and appeal to the whole world: Enough! Enough! Enough of war on Syria!" he concluded.

"We believe in the power of the prayer and fasting in this Great Lent, and we call for a day of solidarity with Syria, a day of fasting and prayer for hope and peace in Syria."