(UPDATED March 20)
By Laura Ieraci Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The head of the Melkite Catholic Church rejected outright all calls for an international military intervention in Syria and urged Pope Francis and all Christian churches to “promote a concrete and realistic road map” to peace in the beleaguered nation.
“It is reckless to think of military interventions, conducted from the outside, to defend Christians in Syria and the Middle East,” said Melkite Patriarch Gregoire III Laham, who is based in Damascus, Syria.
“If we really want to bring an end to the tragedy of the Syrian people, there is only one way: enough war, enough arms, money and ploys used to attack Syria,” he told the Vatican’s Fides news agency.
The patriarch presided over a prayer vigil for peace at the Melkite Cathedral of the Dormition of Our Lady in Damascus March 16. Through prayer, the patriarch told Fides, Christians demonstrate that they are “the true promoters of peace in Syria.”
The patriarch said he was “calling on Pope Francis, and on all churches and Christian communities, so that the 2 billion Christians worldwide, speaking with one voice, promote a concrete and realistic road map, asking all the forces in the field to put aside their calculations for power and the causes that fuel war.”
“Only in this way can the suffering of our people end,” he said. He noted the power of prayer, recalling how, after Pope Francis had called for a universal day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria in September 2013, naval ships that were heading to Syria turned back.
“While we were in prayer these past days, we heard news that western countries will reopen negotiations with (Syrian President Bashar) Assad,” the patriarch told Fides, the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. “This is now the realistic path to follow, if we really want peace.”
The Melkite cathedral in Damascus was full for the March 16 prayer vigil, and the bishops of the various Catholic and Orthodox churches were present. Archbishop Cyril Vasil, secretary of the Vatican Congregation for Eastern Churches, also attended.
In his reflection, Archbishop Vasil said he was sent by Pope Francis to “express his spiritual closeness with all those who suffer,” namely with the displaced, the hungry and those who have been kidnapped.
“The pope never forgets you,” he said. “And I am also here to assure you that, along with the Holy Father, the whole church is and will always be close to you in prayer and charity.”
Noting that Syria has entered its fifth year of war, he said, “We do not accept that this war lasts much longer. Every day is one day too much; every death is one too much.”
He said Christians have the vocation “despite everything, to be messengers of hope.”
“In a world that is increasingly torn apart, we are real bridges of reconciliation,” he said. “We do not forget the victims and we are close to those who mourn the loss of their family members. We firmly believe that their blood is a seed of faith.”
Archbishop Vasil said the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy, which Pope Francis announced March 13, is “a grace for the church in Syria and for the whole church.” He said the Year of Mercy would “bear precious fruit” for Syria.
“And I am sure that our Lord will continue to perform miracles by granting — the day that he wants — the desired peace,” he said.
The archbishop also expressed “profound gratitude” to the witness of the bishops, priests, religious men and women, pastoral workers and volunteers in Syria, who “despite everything, remain with their flocks, who are dear to them.”
Not all church leaders agree that military intervention should be avoided.
In an interview with the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes,” scheduled to air March 22, Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil, Iraq, reiterated his calls for international military intervention to stop Islamic State and to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul.
“For me, Daesh is a cancer,” he said, using the Arabic word for Islamic State. “So sometimes you take some hard measures, unfortunate measures, to deal and treat this cancer.”
When asked if that meant defeating Daesh militarily, he responded, “Please God.”