Middle East

Pope to send a delegation to Damascus: Vatican

Pope Benedict XVI waves to faithful during the Angelus prayer from his studio overlooking St. Peter's square at the Vatican, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

VATICAN CITY: Pope Benedict XVI will send a delegation to Damascus to express his solidarity with the Syrian people, the Vatican said on Tuesday, as violence escalated with deadly air attacks unleashed by the regime on rebel positions.

"We cannot be mere spectators to the tragedy taking place in Syria," the Holy See's number two official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said during a global synod of Catholic bishops at the Vatican.

In remarks broadcast by Vatican Radio, Bertone said the delegation would likely travel to Damascus next week.

It will include Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York; Cardinal Laurent Mosengwo Pasinya, the archbishop of the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa; and the Vatican's top officials for foreign affairs and inter-religious dialogue.

Top Church officials from countries that have undergone conflicts of their own, such as Colombia and Vietnam, will also take part.

Bertone said the delegation would convey the pope's "brotherly solidarity with the entire population", adding that the synod supported the decision.

The delegation will bring a message from the bishops and the Holy See conveying "their spiritual closeness with all Christian brothers and sisters" in

Syria and offer "encouragement to all who are engaged in the search for an agreement that respects the rights and responsibilities of all, with particular attention to humanitarian rights", Bertone said.

"Convinced that the solution to the crisis can only be political, and thinking of the immense suffering of the population, the fate of refugees and the future of the nation, some of us have suggested that our synod assembly can express its solidarity," he added.

A Syrian bishop at the meeting warmly welcomed the announcement, saying it "surpassed all expectations", according to a synod press officer cited by Vatican information service

The Vatican's announcement came as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime unleashed air strikes on rebel positions around Maaret al-Numan, a strategic northern town on the highway from Damascus to commercial capital Aleppo that insurgents captured last week, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The group said at least 78 people, including 37 civilians, died in bloodshed around the country on Tuesday.

The 262 bishops gathered in the Vatican for the synod had begun their work on October 9 praying for peace in Syria.

And when the pope made a three-day visit last month to Lebanon, which neighbours Syria to the west, he called on the international community and Arab countries in particular to "propose workable solutions respecting the dignity, the rights and the religion of every human person".

"May God grant to your country, to Syria and to the Middle East the gift of peaceful hearts, the silencing of weapons and the cessation of all violence," he said at mass on the final day of his trip.





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