Syrian Christians heed Pope Francis’s call to pray for peace

September 9, 2013

(A Syrian rebel fires a heavy machine gun mounted on the back of a vehicle in Maaloula, a suburb of Damascus, in this image taken from a September 4, 2013 video footage obtained from a social media website. The unverified activist video said to be from Wednesday purportedly shows Syrian rebel forces storming the town of Maaloula and clashing with Syrian army troops at a checkpoint in the town that is home to a Christian majority. REUTERS/Social media website via Reuters TV)

Hundreds of Syrian Christians gathered in Damascus on Saturday to pray for peace and protest against possible U.S. military intervention, responding to a call by Pope Francis for a day of prayer and fasting.

During a six-hour service at the al-Zeitouna Church, an ornate Roman Catholic cathedral in the capital’s ancient quarter, Syrian-born Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregoire III Laham appealed to Christians to stay in Syria despite the war.

Syria’s conflict has grown increasingly sectarian since it started as a peaceful uprising in March 2011 and then evolved into an armed rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.

Majority Sunni Muslims dominate the uprising while minorities have generally stuck with the government, which is dominated by members of Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

Pope Francis, who two days ago called a military solution in Syria “a futile pursuit”, led the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in a global day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria, the Middle East and the world on Saturday.

Syrian state television broadcast the ceremonies, billing them as a call for a “return to security and peace in Syria and to oppose any foreign military intervention,” a reference to a bid by U.S. President Barack Obama to use military force to punish Assad’s government for a chemical weapons attack last month.

Television footage showed some worshippers holding Syrian flags and hand-written signs against military intervention. “Hands off Syria,” one read.

Clergy at the Damascus service also referenced the recent violence in Maaloula, a historic Christian town in the centre of the country where some inhabitants still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

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