The Armenian Orthodox Primate of Damascus sees little hope the Syrian civil war will end with a democratic regime in power and questions Western support for rebel groups.

Published in International

BEIRUT - Representatives of 26 humanitarian agencies gathered in Beirut to discuss and coordinate efforts to address the increasing Syrian refugee crisis.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, who visited with Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley, presided over the Nov. 9 meeting.

During the cardinal's Nov. 6-10 visit, he also met with Lebanese President Michel Sleiman and participated in the monthly meeting of the council of Maronite Catholic bishops in Bkerke.

At the meeting sponsored by Caritas, the church's charitable agency, the humanitarian organizations agreed to carry out social work for the vulnerable populations inside and outside of Syria, to help alleviate their suffering, including providing medical and spiritual assistance as well as helping them to find shelter and prepare for the winter.

The groups also agreed to institute an efficient coordination system among the Catholic humanitarian organizations to unify their approach on the field.

They also stressed the importance of efforts to allow refugee children to continue their education and to recover some kind of routine in their daily lives.

Pope Benedict XVI had hoped to send a delegation of three cardinals, three bishops and a priest to Syria during the world Synod of Bishops, which met for three weeks at the Vatican in October, to show solidarity with victims and encourage peace negotiations. The papal delegation to Damascus was to have included Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, chairman of the board of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Pope Benedict announced Nov. 7 that he would send Cardinal Sarah to Lebanon to deliver a $1 million donation and boost the church's humanitarian response to the crisis.

Syria's civil war has left thousands dead and has displaced hundreds of thousands of people since March 2011.
The U.N. refugee agency said Nov. 9 that a record number of Syrian refuges had crossed into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, setting a record for a 24-hour period.

The majority -- reportedly 9,000 Syrians -- had crossed into Turkey's Urfa province during the night Nov. 8, said the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The remaining 2,000 Syrians were registered and assisted by UNHCR in Jordan and Lebanon, the agency said.

Those arrivals bring the number of Syrian refugees in the region to 408,000, the UNHCR said, but the numbers are actually greater because not all of the displaced Syrians entering the countries are registering with the agency.

It said about 115,000 Syrian refugees live in Lebanon. It said approximately 1,000 entering the country daily, including migrant workers who go back and forth between Lebanon and Syria.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - Instability and increasing violence in Syria have prompted Pope Benedict XVI to cancel the planned visit to the war-torn nation by a delegation of cardinals and bishops.

Instead, the pope announced Nov. 7, he has sent a smaller group to Lebanon to deliver a $1 million donation and boost the church's humanitarian response to the crisis.

The pope also appealed for dialogue to end the Syrian conflict, saying: "We have to do everything possible because one day it could be too late."

"I renew my invitation to the parties in conflict, and to all those who have the good of Syria at heart, to spare no effort in the search for peace and to pursue through dialogue the path to a just coexistence, in view of a suitable political solution of the conflict," Pope Benedict said at the end of his general audience in St. Peter's Square.

"I continue to follow with great concern the tragic situation of violent conflict in Syria, where the fighting has not ceased and each day the toll of victims rises, accompanied by the untold suffering of many civilians, especially those who have been forced to abandon their homes," he said.

He said he had hoped to send a delegation of three cardinals, three bishops and a priest to Syria during the world Synod of Bishops, which met for three weeks at the Vatican in October, to show solidarity with victims and encourage peace negotiations. The papal delegation to Damascus was to have included Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, who is chairman of the board of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

"Unfortunately, due to a variety of circumstances and developments, it was not possible to carry out this initiative as planned," the pope said, "and so I have decided to entrust a special mission to Cardinal Robert Sarah, president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum," which promotes and coordinates Catholic charitable giving.

Together with Cor Unum's secretary, Msgr. Giampietro Dal Toso, and Michel Roy, secretary-general of the Vatican-based umbrella group of Catholic aid agencies, Caritas Internationalis, Cardinal Sarah was to be in Lebanon Nov. 7-10, where he was to meet with priests, religious and lay representatives of Christian churches in Syria.

"He will visit a number of refugees from that country and will chair a meeting of Catholic charitable agencies to coordinate efforts, as the Holy See has urgently requested, to provide assistance to the Syrian people, inside and outside the country," the pope said of Cardinal Sarah's mandate.

The cardinal will deliver a $1 million donation made by participants in the Oct 7-28 synod and the pope himself. The money is to provide humanitarian aid and support local churches in an effort to bring some relief to those hit by the crisis, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told reporters.

The papal delegation's visit itself is also meant to "prompt all sides involved, as well as those who hold dear the good of Syria, to seek a just and peaceful solution to the conflict, Father Lombardi added.

Syria's civil war has left thousands dead and has displaced hundreds of thousands of people since March 2011.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - A papal delegation of bishops will travel to the capital of wartorn Syria in late October to show solidarity with victims and encourage peace negotiations.

"In the certainty that the only possible solution to the crisis is a political solution, and bearing in mind the immense suffering of the population, the fate of displaced persons, and the future of that nation, it has been suggested that our synodal assembly express its solidarity," said Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, who announced the visit at the world Synod of Bishops.

Syria's civil war has left thousands dead and has displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees since March 2011.

The cardinal said that Pope Benedict XVI had instructed a delegation of six bishops and a priest to express, on behalf of the Pope and the synod, "our fraternal solidarity with the entire population"; "our spiritual closeness to our Christian brothers and sisters"; and "our encouragement to all those involved in seeking an agreement that respects the rights and duties of all, with particular attention to the demands of humanitarian law."

Bertone gave no date for the trip, but said it would take place next week, after completion of the "necessary formalities" with the papal nuncio and the "local authorities" in Damascus.

He also mentioned that the delegation would bring a "personal offering from the synod fathers as well as from the Holy See," which the Vatican press office later confirmed would take the form of a financial contribution.

Members of the delegation will be New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Congolese Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kinshasa, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Bishop Fabio Suescun Mutis, the military ordinary of Colombia, Bishop Joseph Nguyen Nang of Phat Diem, Vietnam, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Vatican secretary for relations with states, and Msgr. Alberto Ortega, an official of the Vatican Secretariat of State.

Dolan, chairman of the board of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, said he was "honoured" that the Pope had chosen to send him to Syria.

"There can be no question but that the violence in this strife-torn country is causing immense suffering," Dolan said, "and it is the hope of the bishops of the synod that this display of pastoral concern on the part of Pope Benedict might help draw the world's attention even more closely to this unspeakable tragedy."

Another synod member, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., said that one purpose of the visit will be "to look, to listen, to try to see and understand better what is going on and how the Church can be helpful."

"But it's also a way of saying to people that we are concerned, that we are here in solidarity with you," said Kicanas, chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services, which is aiding Syrian refugees in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

"We hope to make known to the international community what the situation is and that the international community must step up and address this very serious situation," the bishop said.

Published in International

WASHINGTON - While media images of the Syrian civil war are mainly those of men with guns, workers from Catholic Relief Services have seen "predominantly women and children, fleeing," said a communications officer who recently returned from the Middle East.

Syrian women, hailing from a society that gives them little chance to make their voices heard, were "tugging on my sleeve, begging me to tell their stories" in the United States, said the manager, Caroline Brennan, who visited with the refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.

The 250,000 Syrian refugees, part of a larger group of 1.5 million Syrians displaced from their homes due to the fierce fighting enveloping their country, have been "blindsided by what is happening to them," she said.

These Syrians were "viewing (the war) from a distance, never thinking this would affect their lives," Brennan said. "Many of these people, literally fleeing for their lives, are middle class. They have nice homes. The country has no debt. They never expected to see this happening."

Brennan told of a pregnant Syrian refugee who got a job as a maid in exchange for shelter for her and her sons. She worked until she gave birth and went back to work again shortly thereafter.

"She had no way to see a doctor or pediatrician" until CRS stepped in," she said. "Many of these women have bullet wounds. Their children need care.

"One woman I met in Jordan ... she was with her mother and they heard gunshots and they scurried around a corner. And the woman saw her mother, lying next to her, on the ground," felled by a bullet.

"Families are trying desperately to stay together," but not always succeeding, Brennan added. Sometimes, men "stay home trying to protect their land, or they're fighting — or worse, they've been kidnapped. The women are left to lead the family. They think: What is happening to the people they love in this world?"

But she also told of a Syrian husband and father named Faizad.

"He came across the border, but his wife and (most of their) children weren't allowed to make it. But then he has a son he has to care for. He (the son) cries at night, he misses his mom," Brennan said. Workers can tell from the boy's drawings that he has seen "people with guns killing innocent people," she added.

"This is a humanitarian crisis at its heart," she said.

There are "huge social needs of the people, especially children and mothers," said Vivian Manneh, a 20-year CRS veteran currently serving as a regional program manager for the Middle East. "Kids are starting to think, 'What is going to happen to us? Where are we going to be?' There are lots of psychosocial needs, lots of basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter."

Manneh said she sees people "who are in need of food, who are praying and lacking lots of the basics. They are leaving their homes with nothing. Their children are out of school. They have no clothing. They are using fruit trees to chop as cooking gas. Their situation is dire. The humanitarian crisis is increasing a lot."

She added, "If you see people coming out with babies, they have nothing to cross (the border) with, no sustenance — they had to flee quickly."

The shelter issue is complicated. Because of the Syrian refugees' impressions of Palestinian refugee camps, they resist as long as possible going to the camps set up for them.

"There are not a lot of places to go to. The rents are increasing," Manneh said.

Because of the prior long-term stability of their country, few Syrians have relatives in other countries who can take them in.

"They will come back (to Syria) as long as they feel safe. They will go back even if they know their home is laying right on the ground and they know they don't have a place," Manneh said.

Brennan concurred. She said refugees have told her, "I'd rather sleep on the dirt of my home" as long as there was peace.

"They don't see themselves as long-term refugees," she said. "They want to go home."

Seeing the "sad sequence of deaths and injuries, including among civilians, and a huge number of people internally displaced or seeking refuge in neighbouring countries," Pope Benedict XVI appealed July 29 for an end to "all violence and bloodshed" in Syria, which has seen thousands of civilian deaths since protests against the Bashar Assad regime started in March 2011.

One irony in the situation is that an estimated one million Iraqi refugees currently live in Syria. Now, some Syrians are fleeting to Iraq.

"They (Iraqis) are very hospitable, opening their doors," Manneh said, but "we don't know how many (refugees) they are going to take."

Published in International

DUBLIN - A Carmelite nun said the armed insurrection in Syria is "producing a totalitarianism that is worse" than that of Bashar Assad's regime.

Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, superior of the community at the monastery of St. James the Mutilated in Qara, Syria, also appealed to the international community to stop supporting violent militias linked to al-Qaida and other extremist groups guilty of atrocities against innocent Syrian civilians.

"We know now that those people are not fighting for freedom, they are fighting for their values, and those values are not even those of moderate Islam, they are fundamentalist," the Lebanese-born nun said.

"What has really scandalized us and leaves us in distress is that the Western world seems to be encouraging this rise of sectarian violence just to topple the (Assad) regime."

Mother Agnes Mariam, spokeswoman for the Catholic Media Centre of the Melkite Catholic archdiocese of Homs, said the insurgents were targeting religious minorities and executing moderate Sunnis such as journalists, researchers, doctors and engineers to pressure their families and communities into supporting an Islamist state. She claimed they were "destroying the delicate religious and ethnic balance" in Syria.

"You don't know when it will be your turn to be considered a collaborator," she explained of the arbitrary abductions, beheadings and killings being carried out as part of a campaign of terror by the insurgents against those they claim are working for the Assad regime. "It is a life of fear and insecurity."

She described the international community's public utterances in support of peace as "paradoxical" in view of the financial support recently pledged by Britain and the United States to the insurgents, whom she warned are "paralysing civilian life." The Sunni Muslim rebels are also backed by Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

"This money will be used for weapons which will increase the violence," Mother Agnes Mariam told Catholic News Service in Dublin in mid-August after a meeting with the papal nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown, and with representatives of the Irish bishops' justice and peace council.

On Aug. 15, a panel of UN experts based in Geneva concluded that government forces and pro-government militias as well as armed insurgents had committed war crimes in the Syrian conflict between Feb. 15 and July 20. However, only the panel's chairman was allowed to enter Syria to conduct interviews; other panelists were denied access.

In late July, the UN said an estimated 2.5 million Syrians have been injured, displaced or face problems securing food or basic necessities since the uprising — now deemed a civil war by the Red Cross — began in March 2011. Activists estimate 20,000-28,000 people have died in the conflict.

Mother Agnes Mariam said a prelate in Aleppo told her that although the city "did not really enter in the revolution demonstrations, as the majority of the city's population wanted to stay neutral," the city had been "invaded by thousands of rebels, most of whom are not Syrian," and that they were "forcing people to either collaborate with them or killing them."

"My appeal is for the civilian population," Mother Agnes Mariam said. "This is not the way to bring freedom or democracy to a country which has been under a yoke of totalitarianism for 50 years."

She said that, in Homs, she had witnessed "terrible things."

"I have seen hundreds of corpses of civilians who were shot, cut in pieces — just because they were civilians going to their work," she said.

Likening Homs to Stalingrad, Russia, or Dresden, Germany, after the Second World War, she said ancient Catholic, Orthodox and Presbyterian churches had been desecrated and the conflict had caused 130,000 Christians to flee the area.

"The only solution is for a complete ceasefire and dialogue from within Syria and for all factions to enter into a movement of reconciliation and of dialogue," she suggested. "We want first of all to stop violence."

She also urged support for an alternative solution to the violence.

"Mussalaha, which in Arabic means reconciliation, is a community-based non-violent initiative which has emerged from within civil society. Religious, family and ethnic leaders have been meeting to promote peace and reconciliation within Syrian society. It is an alternative to the violence of the insurrection or international military intervention," she said.

The Church-backed initiative emerged in June in Homs following the attendance of representatives of various religions at a meeting that resulted in a number of joint declarations on building peace and mutual respect in Syria.

Born in Lebanon of a Lebanese mother and a Palestinian father, Mother Agnes Mariam lived through the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990. She joined the Carmelites in 1971, and in 1994 she established a new monastic foundation in the sixth-century monastery of St. James the Mutilated in Qara.

Published in International

ROME - Italian Jesuit Father Paolo Dall'Oglio was expelled from Syria in mid-June after he intensified his public calls for democratic change in the country.

"The blood on the ground must be respected and religious leaders must speak out," Dall'Oglio told Catholic News Service in Rome July 18.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - As violence continued to shake Syria, the Vatican nuncio in Damascus called on the international community to unite in efforts to restore peace.

"In Damascus, the last three days have been very difficult" as the fighting moved to the city, Archbishop Mario Zenari, the nuncio, told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview from the capital July 17.

"The situation compared to a month ago clearly is more tense," he said.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - The international community must act swiftly and decisively to end the violence in Syria, which "risks becoming a widespread conflict that would have seriously negative consequences for the country and the entire region," Pope Benedict XVI said.

The Pope expressed his prayers and hopes for peace in Syria during a meeting June 21 with Catholic Church representatives from throughout the Middle East, including the nuncio to Syria and the president of Caritas Syria, and with leaders of Eastern Catholic churches.

The representatives and leaders were at the Vatican for a meeting of the Vatican's coordinating body for church funding agencies that assist Eastern Catholics and Catholics throughout the Middle East.

The violence in Syria began in March 2011 and has led to the deaths of thousands of civilians as soldiers battle forces seeking an end to the rule of President Bashar Assad.

Published in International

BEIRUT - Warning that Lebanon is going through a critical juncture, Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Rai called for national dialogue to address the security and political situation in the country.

During his June 3 homily at Bkerke, just north of Beirut, the patriarch condemned the previous day's clashes in the northern coastal city of Tripoli between Sunni groups opposing Syrian President Bashar Assad and Alawites who support the Syrian leader. At least 14 people died and more than 50 were wounded.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI joined the international community in condemning a massacre in Syria, and he called for Christian and Muslim leaders in the country to guide their faithful in prayer and collaboration to restore peace and calm.

The massacre in Houla May 25-26 left about 108 people dead, including 49 children and 34 women. The U.N. Security Council May 27 condemned the massacre of civilians and, while not pinning all the blame on the Syrian government, it accused the government of inappropriately using heavy weapons in a residential area.

Published in International

OTTAWA - The Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) is monitoring the plight of Christians in Syria and is poised to help should their position deteriorate.

CNEWA Canada national secretary Carl Hétu said the agency is carefully sifting reports from the Syria, especially in the city of Homs, a key battleground between Syrian and rebel forces. Many Christians live in Homs, Hétu said, and many have fled the city because of the shelling.  

“We heard some reports that people were actually forced to leave,” whether by forces supporting the Assad government or rebel forces, he said. “Some say it was Islamists. It’s not clear. There are different stories coming out.”

CNEWA, as well as Caritas Lebanon and the Islam Relief Fund of Canada, is accepting donations to help Syrian refugees, Hetu said.

For more information, see www.cnewa.ca.

Published in Canada

VATICAN CITY - Mourning the death of Syrian-born Cardinal Ignace Moussa Daoud, who died April 7 in a Rome hospital, Pope Benedict XVI also prayed for the people of the Middle East "living through difficult times."

The 81-year-old cardinal was the retired prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches and the former patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church. His funeral was scheduled for April 10 in St. Peter's Basilica.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI has donated $100,000 to help the people of Syria.

The Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Vatican's charity promotion and coordinating office, announced March 31 that the Pope made the donation to fund "the charitable work of the local church in Syria supporting the population" that has been hit by the ongoing violence in the country.

The council's secretary, Msgr. Giampietro Dal Toso, was to personally deliver the aid March 31 and meet with Melkite Patriarch Gregoire III Laham of Damascus, Syria, as well as other local church leaders.

Published in International

JERUSALEM - Christians in Syria live in fear of a repeat of persecution like was seen in Iraq, said officials of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.

"The same pattern like in Iraq is re-emerging, as Islamic militants are now kidnapping and killing Christians in Syria," said Issam Bishara, vice president of the Pontifical Mission and regional director for Lebanon and Syria. "Christians are concerned about the repercussions of the events taking place in the region. They fear that the experiences of Iraq and Lebanon -- which took place against the backdrop of a civil war -- could play out again in their own lands. These concerns haunt the Syrian Christians."

Published in International