Syrian bishops support UN, as it criticizes regime and rebels

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Syria's Catholic bishops have expressed support for the monitoring mission of the United Nations, which accused both rebels and government forces of violating a cease-fire on May 1.

“Violence has gone beyond all limits,” the Assembly of the Catholic Hierarchy in Syria said in a communique released in an English translation on April 30. “We can only appeal strongly and emphatically to all people of conscience to return to their senses and abjure anything destructive of human and national life.”

“We strongly condemn all kinds of violence from whatever quarter,” said the assembly, which was led by Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III and included Syrian Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III and apostolic nuncio Archbishop Mario Zenari. Its traditional spring meeting took place at the Maronite Archbishopric of Aleppo on April 25.

The assembly expressed support for the mission of U.N. Special Envoy Kofi Annan, especially in its effort to have heavy weapons withdrawn from civilian areas. The bishops called for “reconciliation and dialogue between the State and all elements in the country,” to rebuild “trust, openness to others and respect for differing political, religious and intellectual affiliations and opinions.”

On May 1, however, the effort to reconcile Syrians seemed imperiled by the actions of rebels and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Around 30 deaths were reported, including 12 soldiers and at least 10 civilians.

Herve Ladsous, the U.N. Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, said in a May 1 news conference that “the level of violence in Syria has been appalling.” The U.N. has accused the government of killing 9,000 Syrians over the past year, while the government says the opposition has killed 2,600 police and soldiers.

“I think the violations that are observed come from both sides,” said Ladsous, who said he would “not establish a ratio” between acts of the regime and its opponents. “The important fact is that violations do come from both sides.”

In their statement, Syria's Catholic bishops also expressed “solidarity with the pain and suffering of all citizens, whether civilian or military, affected by the events and the painful cycle of violence in different parts of the country for the past thirteen months.”

Many Christians, they noted, “have been obliged to leave their homes and towns or villages” to escape the violence. “Sometimes they have been used as human shields and their districts as battlefields.”

Some observers fear that the sudden collapse of the Assad regime could lead to an Iraq-like power struggle in Syria, and a resulting Christian exodus. The head of the Damascus-based Melkite Greek Catholic Church has told Western governments not to support Arab revolutions, but to encourage responsible transitions toward greater freedom.

The assembly of bishops under his leadership said they stood “shoulder to shoulder” with Syrians who are looking for “a dignified life” and seeking an “effective reform process.” 

“The State has called for dialogue and we invite all national parties at home and abroad to build a new multi-party democratic Syria,” they announced, encouraging “everyone to participate fully in free and fair elections for the National Assembly” on May 7.

The bishops ended their message by reminding Syrian Christians of Jesus' triumph over death, celebrated throughout the Easter season.

“We wish them, in the joy of the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, to be strengthened by resurrection in their hearts and for them to be witnesses of this Resurrection.”

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