CNS PHOTO | BASSAM KHABIEH, REUTERS
People rest in a mosque ill, from a gas attack carried out in Damascus Aug 21. The gas attack killed hundreds of people.
Condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Pope Francis has called for a negotiated end to the civil war in the war-torn Middle Eastern country.
The pope also announced he would lead a worldwide day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria on Saturday, Sept. 7 with a four-hour evening vigil in St. Peter's Square.
"The world needs to see gestures of peace and hear words of hope and of peace," Pope Francis said in his Sept. 1 Angelus talk.
Meanwhile, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith has asked Catholics to support a fundraising campaign of the Canadian bishops and Development and Peace (www.devp.org) to aid Syrian refugees.
As well, the archbishop reminded Catholics that Sept. 14, the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, has been set as a day of prayer and fasting for the people of Syria. (See the full text of Archbishop Smith's letter.)
Pope Francis said he is "anguished by the dramatic developments" on the horizon, an apparent reference to plans by the United States and France to launch a military strike against Syria in retaliation for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Damascus, Syria that killed 1,400 people.
He repeated his earlier appeals for all sides in the civil war to put down their arms and "listen to the voice of their conscience and with courage take up the way of negotiations."
For all Catholics, the pope proclaimed Sept. 7 a "day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East and throughout the world." On fast days, adult Catholics in good health are expected to eat only one full meal.
At his Angelus talk Aug. 25, the pope said the "terrible images" of the dead, including children in the chemical weapons attack, "push me once again to raise a voice so that the roar of the weapons would stop.
"It is not clashes, but an ability to meet and to dialogue that offers prospects for a hope of resolving the problems," he said.
The pope again asked the crowd to join him in praying that Mary, queen of peace, would intercede to stop the fighting that has raged since March 2011 as rebels try to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.
More than 100,000 people are estimated to have died in Syria's civil war, and two million have been made homeless.
Pope Francis and Jordan's King Abdullah II said dialogue and negotiations are "the only option for putting an end to the conflict and violence" in Syria, following their Aug. 29 meeting at the Vatican.
Jordan borders Syria and hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled the fighting that began in March 2011.
The king and queen's meeting with Pope Francis was arranged hastily after tensions grew in the Middle East.
The pope's opposition to an outside military attack on Syria bolstered similar calls from Church leaders in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.
A committee of U.S. bishops called for a political solution, and Catholic leaders in Europe warned military intervention could lead to an escalation of hostilities.
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the chairman of the bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace reiterated its long-standing position that "the Syrian people urgently need a political solution that ends the fighting and creates a future . . . that respects religious rights and religious freedom."
The letter, signed by the committee chairman, Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, called on the U.S. to work with other governments to pursue negotiations and a ceasefire.
Speaking Aug. 28 on the PBS NewsHour program, U.S. President Barack Obama said he was convinced the Syrian government carried out chemical weapons attacks.
The government had blamed rebels, but Obama said, "We do not believe that, given the delivery systems - using rockets - that the opposition could have carried out these attacks."
If Assad's government is responsible, he said, "then there needs to be international consequences."
In a column in Austria's Heute daily, Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schonborn said that "taking up arms can only be a last resort."
"Were previous weapons programs successful in this region, and did the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bring peace? What good can bombs do in a country already bleeding from a thousand wounds?" Schonborn asked.
The head of the German bishops' commission for international Church affairs, Archbishop Ludwig Schick, said Aug. 28 an armed intervention could not be justified in Catholic teaching.
Such an intervention requires "total certainty of the confirmed damage," as well as "serious chance of success" and a capacity to avoid "worse damage than that to be eliminated," Schick said.
Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo told Vatican Radio Aug. 26 that Pope Francis was calling for a real commitment by the international community to encourage dialogue and negotiations in Syria.
"If there were a military intervention, I think this would lead to a world war," the bishop said. "There is this risk."
Syrian-born Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregoire III Laham warned against armed intervention in his country, saying, "It has brought us to the tragedy we are now living in Syria."
Speaking to Catholic News Service by phone Aug. 27, the patriarch said such a step "would be a tragedy, a tragedy, a tragedy - for the whole country and the whole Middle East."
"Enough with the intervention," he said. "It is fueling hatred, fueling criminality, fueling inhumanity, fueling fundamentalism, terrorism - all these things are the fruit of intervention. Enough!"
"Surely, it will spread like a world war," he said.
The patriarch said external intervention "is destroying the whole sense of community, of friendship of love between peoples, of conviviality, of living together, Christians and Muslims."
In a statement published Aug. 29 on his website, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem pleaded with the United States and its allies to think again before taking military action.
"Our friends in the West and the United States have not been attacked by Syria," he said. "Who appointed them as 'policemen of democracy' in the Middle East?"