ROME– Christian leaders around the world, particularly from the Middle East, are raising their voices in favor of an “end to the bloodshed in Syria” in light of a bombing carried out by the United States, the United Kingdom and France this weekend, targeting military compounds that host chemical weapons.
Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill spoke on the phone on Saturday, according to TASS, the Russian news agency, worried about the latest developments in the Syrian war.
“We have come forward with this initiative knowing that the Christians cannot remain on the sidelines seeing what is happening in Syria,” Kirill told reporters on Saturday. “Ours was a significant peacemaking dialogue.”
He also said that the two Christian leaders hope to see an end to the “bloodshed” in Syria.
“We spoke about how Christians should influence the events with the scope of putting an end to the violence, ending the war, preventing even more victims,” Kirill said.
Though there’s no accurate number for the amount of casualties in the past seven years, an estimated 400,000 to half a million people are believed to have been killed as a direct result of the ongoing war, either at the hands of terrorist organizations such as ISIS, the Syrian government, rebel groups or international actors, including Russia and the U.S.
Last week, during his weekly Sunday address, Francis demanded an end to the “inhuman” violence in Syria, saying that it had to end “without delay.”
“In these days, my thoughts have often turned to the beloved and martyred Syria, where war has intensified, especially in Eastern Ghouta,” he said, referring to an eastern suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus, where the bombing by government forces has been concentrated. On Saturday, the Syrian army declared the area “completely liberated.”
Friday’s overnight strikes hit three sites — one in Damascus and two in Homs — which President Donald Trump said were “associated with the chemical weapon capabilities of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.”
Trump hailed the strike as “perfectly executed” in a tweet posted Saturday, adding “Mission Accomplished!”
Christians in Syria, however, don’t agree with Trump’s assertion.
In a joint statement issued by three Syrian patriarchs, they “condemn and denounce the brutal aggression that took place this morning (Saturday) in our precious country Syria by the USA, France and the UK, under the allegations that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons.”
The statement is signed by John X, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East; Ignatius Aphrem II, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, and Joseph Absi, Melkite-Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem.
According to the prelates, the “brutal aggression” violates international law and the United Nations charter, because it’s an “unjustified assault” on a sovereign country.
As other prelates before them, they also question the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, saying that such a claim, used to justify the airstrikes, is “unjustified and unsupported by sufficient and clear evidence.”
On Friday, United Nations war crimes investigators condemned the suspected use of chemical weapons in the Syrian town of Douma in eastern Ghouta, and at the time of the bombing, experts were travelling to the country to investigate the alleged attack which killed dozens of people.
According to the patriarchs, the fact that the bombing took place before the commission began its work, “undermines” the efforts of the inquiry. Defining the aggression as “brutal” and “unjust,” they also denounced that it encourages terrorist organizations and “gives them momentum to continue in their terrorism.”
“We call upon all churches in the countries that participated in the aggression, to fulfill their Christian duties, according to the teachings of the Gospel, and condemn this aggression and to call their governments to commit to the protection of international peace,” they wrote.
They closed their statement praying for peace in Syria and in the world, and saying that they’re confident that the Syrian army will “not bow before the external or internal terrorist aggressions.”
The patriarchs are not the first ones to question the veracity of the chemical attack.
Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo, of Aleppo, denounced that the “United States and Russia are using Syria to wage a war against one another.”
Speaking with Italian TV Tg2000, he said that this weekend’s bombing proved that the international community is trying to do in Syria what they did in Iraq, “when they destroyed that country saying that there were chemical weapons.”
“What they did in Iraq, they’re doing now to Syria,” he said.
“How is it possible that Assad used chemical weapons to defend himself?” Audo questioned, insisting that it’s all a ruse for the U.S. and Russia to compete for influence.
Bishop Georges About Khazen, apostolic vicar of Aleppo, said that the bombing showed the true interests of those involved in the fighting, saying that it was originally a “proxy war,” but that now that the “minor actors have been defeated, the real protagonists of the conflict are out on the field.”
He too, is waiting for the confirmation that Assad has in fact, used chemical weapons, but in the meantime, he continues to call for peace.
“Every appeal for peace falls on deaf ears, only Pope Francis continues to hope for peace, and we hope with him,” he told Sir, the news agency of the Italian bishops’ conference.
While some continue to hope for a peace that hasn’t come, the “suffering of the population that asks for peace grows, receiving bombs and missiles in return” for their appeals, he said.
At this point, Khazen said, his hope is that the recent airstrikes won’t multiply to other places in the region because it would “be really dangerous and everything could get out of hand.”
“We need a shared solution to be reached without lies,” he said. “We have no other weapons than prayer.”