The Administrative Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an urgent call for a political solution to the crisis in Syria today. “We ask the United States to work with other governments to obtain a ceasefire, initiate serious negotiations, provide impartial humanitarian assistance, and encourage efforts to build an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, including Christians and other minorities,” the bishops wrote.
The statement was released as furious diplomatic efforts continued to take advantage of an unexpected initiative, tentatively welcomed by the Obama administration, to secure and destroy the chemical weapons stock of the Syrian government forces. On Tuesday French diplomats reported that they would push for a U.N. resolution setting out terms for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons and warning of "serious consequences" if Syrian military resisted.
The announcement by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius came a day after a surprise proposal by Russia that its Syrian ally hand over its chemical weapons, a move that could avert possible U.S.-led military strikes. The Russian campaign seized on the apparently impromptu comments of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday that removing its chemical weapons from the conflict would be the "only way" Syrian government forces could expect to avoid a potentially crippling U.S. strike. The bishops said these recent international proposals “deserve serious consideration, evaluation and encouragement.”
Polls have shown little appetite among the U.S. public for another uncertain intervention in the Middle East. And support for a U.S. strike against Syria in Congress, never strong, has weakened considerably as outrage fades over the killing of 1,400 civilians, including more than 400 children, according to U.S. officials, with chemical weapons by Syrian military on August 21. The Obama administration's case that Syrian regulars are to blame for the attack was bolstered today by a report from Human Rights Watch. According to the report, the available evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government forces were responsible for chemical weapons attacks on two Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013. "These attacks, which killed hundreds of civilians including many children, appeared to use a weapons-grade nerve agent, most likely Sarin." According to HRW, suggestions that opposition forces could have been responsible for the attack are "not credible."
“As Congress struggles with the complex challenges and humanitarian catastrophe that have engulfed Syria, we offer the voice of the Universal Church and our prayers for peace,” the bishops wrote in their statement pushing for a political solution that has proved elusive over two years of civil war in Syria. The bishops also echoed the call of Pope Francis and bishops in the Middle East against military intervention in Syria. "We have heard the urgent calls of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, and our suffering brother bishops of the venerable and ancient Christian Churches of the Middle East. As one, they beg the international community not to resort to military intervention in Syria," the bishops said in their statement. "They have made it clear that a military attack will be counterproductive, will exacerbate an already deadly situation, and will have unintended negative consequences. Their concerns strongly resonate in American public opinion that questions the wisdom of intervention and in the lack of international support."
They added, "We recall a decade ago when the Holy See and the Church in the Middle East urgently warned of the 'unpredictable' and 'grave' consequences of a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, concerns we shared with our government. Although Syria is not Iraq and the resolution before Congress calls for a limited strike, not an invasion, the warnings we are hearing from the Holy See and local bishops of the region are similar; they question the probability of success of the use of military force in shortening the conflict and saving lives. We are also aware of the heavy burden already borne by the military and their families."
The appeal followed a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria on Sept. 7, which had been called for by Pope Francis. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, USCCB president, and Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, USCCB International Justice and Peace chairman, wrote letters September 4 and 5 to President Obama and Congress, respectively, also urging that the United States not resort to military action. The bishops issued the statement on the first day of their September 10-11 Administrative Committee meeting at the USCCB headquarters in Washington.
The bishops condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria, calling it a “heinous crime against humanity.” They added: "Tragically, the deaths from chemical weapons are only part of the grievous story of Syria these days. More than 100,000 Syrians have lost their lives. More than 2 million have fled the country as refugees. More than 4 million within Syria have been driven from their homes by violence." This unfolding humanitarian crisis, they added, requires the United States and international community "to save lives by pressing for serious dialogue to end the conflict, by refraining from fueling further violence with military attacks or arms transfers, and by offering more humanitarian assistance."
The bishops wrote: "We make our own the appeal of Pope Francis: 'I exhort the international community to make every effort to promote clear proposals for peace in that country without further delay, a peace based on dialogue and negotiation, for the good of the entire Syrian people. May no effort be spared in guaranteeing humanitarian assistance to those wounded by this terrible conflict, in particular those forced to flee and the many refugees in nearby countries.'"