BEIRUT - Church aid workers scrambled to find housing for hundreds of Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring Lebanon because of ongoing violence between Syrian forces and armed rebels.

About 200 families -- more than 1,000 people overall -- made their way to the border town of Qaa in the Bekaa Valley in northern Lebanon March 5 and were struggling in the region's near-freezing temperatures.

Father Simon Faddoul, president of Caritas Lebanon, told Catholic News Service March 6 that "women and children and the elderly are coming out in the cold, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, to seek safety."

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VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI urged Christians in the Middle East not to lose hope despite the serious difficulties they face.

"I extend my prayerful thoughts to the regions in the Middle East, encouraging all the priests and faithful to persevere with hope through the serious suffering that afflicts these beloved people," he said.

The Pope made his remarks when he greeted Armenian Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX Tarmouni of Beirut and Armenian bishops from around the world attending their synod in Rome.

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OTTAWA - The violence plaguing Syria has forced the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) to put many of its projects there on hold, even though Christians so far do not seem to have been specifically targeted.

But support for Iraqi Christians who fled to Iraq, many of whom struggle to survive in the slums of Damascus, is still ongoing, said CNEWA Canada national director Carl Hétu.

Published in Canada

ANTAKYA, Turkey - Masked gunmen stormed the Syrian desert monastery of Deir Mar Musa, about 50 miles southwest of Homs, destroying property and briefly holding its inhabitants captive.

The monastery's website reported March 1 that on Feb. 22, approximately 30 armed men infiltrated the hillside monastery, holding community members at gunpoint as they searched for weapons and money.

Dating from the sixth century, Mar Musa was re-established by an Italian Jesuit priest in the early 1980s. The monastery and its church are staffed with Catholic and Orthodox nuns and priests, and the compound has become a center for Muslim-Christian interfaith dialogue.

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a despot whose shooting and shelling of his own people cannot be defended, yet he may be the last line of defence for Syria’s Catholics.

For that reason, Syrian Church leaders are taking a cautious approach to the nearly year-long rebellion to topple Assad. They have been pleading for calm, for dialogue and for Western assistance to find a peaceful solution to Syria’s popular uprising as the nation moves ever closer to all-out civil war. So far, the dispute is political, but churchmen fear the fighting may quickly turn religious.

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TORONTO - While Syrians endure shelling and sniper fire from their government, Iraqi refugees among them are hunkered down in the Sayyida Zainab neighbourhood of Damascus hoping they can get out before things get much worse.

“If you stay away from any mass demonstrations, stay away from any political activity, if you stay in your neighbourhood, in your church where the Iraqi refugees are, nobody will target you,” is the advice the Office of Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto (ORAT) is giving hundreds of Iraqi refugees that Toronto parishes and religious communities have sponsored to come to Canada.

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA

VATICAN CITY - As a sectarian conflict in Syria intensified, Pope Benedict XVI called on all Syrians to begin a process of dialogue and reminded the government of its duty to recognize its citizens' legitimate demands.

In Beirut, the patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church warned against toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, calling for dialogue to solve the crisis in the country.

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WASHINGTON - Some priests have decided to stay in battle-scarred Homs, Syria, even as government forces intensified their strikes against the heart of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, said the Vatican's nuncio to Syria.

Archbishop Mario Zenari told Catholic News Service in an email Feb. 9 that he had been in almost daily contact with priests in Homs and that "with respect to their safety, the situation is, in certain respects, uncertain."

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