Two weeks ago I celebrated the final Mass of the summer season at the Shrine of St. Therese. After Mass I met a group of about 25 Armenian Christian pilgrims who had come to the Shrine to pray. They shared with me that about half their number had emigrated from Syria, which has a small but ancient Armenian community.
My brief encounter with these good people was a reminder to me not to lose sight of the human dimension of the current Syria crisis. Over 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the past two years of civil war. An estimated 2 million Syrian refugees have sought refuge in the countries that border Syria — in desperate need of food, water, shelter, medicine and above all, in need of an end to the conflict so they can return home.
The intensifying conflict between the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and the various groups that have risen up in rebellion against his regime has been a tragedy of violence and destruction that has affected all of the various religious and ethnic communities that make up the Syrian nation.
The conflict escalated on Aug. 21 with the presumed use of sarin nerve gas, a chemical weapon, by the Assad forces against neighborhoods in Damascus held by rebel forces. A thousand or more civilians, many of whom were children, were killed and many more were poisoned with these horrific weapons.
This attack, in turn, has led President Obama and his administration to threaten a military assault against Syria, both to punish the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and to deter the future use of these internationally outlawed weapons by countries that continue to possess them.
Military action by our country, however, carries with it the real possibility of a wider regional conflict that could involve both the United States and some or all of the states that border Syria, some of which, like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States support the rebels; and others, such as Iran, Russia and Iraq, support the Assad government.
Catholic moral teaching absolutely condemns the production, possession and use of chemical weapons, which by their nature cannot discriminate between innocent civilians and legitimate military targets. While Catholic moral teaching always favors peace between nations, it also recognizes that in some very limited circumstances the resort to military force may be justified.
I am grateful that Pope Francis responded to the threat of an escalation of the war in Syria by calling on Catholics around the world to a day of prayer and fasting for peace — this took place last Saturday on Sept. 7. He invited members of other Christian communities and other faiths, as well as all men and women of goodwill, to join us in this spiritual endeavor. Although his call to prayer came at very short notice, I was moved by the generous response to his call for prayer and fasting here in Southeast Alaska and around the world.
An integral aspect of the call of the Church, as expressed by the Holy Father in this critical moment, has been the summons that the international community makes a renewed effort toward a peaceful solution rather than a military one in Syria. The Church, following the guidance of the Holy Father, desires to be a catalyst for a non-violent solution to the crisis in Syria; a solution that is just, respects the dignity of persons, and is careful not to deepen the tensions that exist.
Fortunately, in the past week, the possibility of a peaceful solution to the crisis has developed. The Russian government proposed that Syria agree to give up its chemical weapons. Syria has admitted its possession of chemical weapons, has expressed its desire to sign the treaty banning them and has said it is willing to place them under international control. In response, President Obama has postponed seeking Congressional authorization for military action while pursuing a diplomatic solution that would lead to the destruction of all Syrian chemical weapons and the dismantling of production facilities.
Last Saturday’s day of prayer and fasting was a timely reminder that peace, whether in the individual heart, in families or between nations, depends upon our openness to the divine will of God — the very source of compassion, mercy, forgiveness and sacrificial love. As this crisis continues to unfold, it is important that we continue to pray that peace may reign in Syria, the Middle East and throughout world.