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Gratitude for pope’s message to Assad

DAMASCUS (AsiaNews): Local media gave wide and enthusiastic support to a message from Pope Francis to the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, which was delivered by the nuncio to Syria, Mario Cardinal Zenari, on December 12.

Archbishop Georges Abou Khazen, the Latin rite vicar of Aleppo, described the papal gesture as being an historic act, a sign of hope for everyone and a confirmation of the attention the pope is paying to Syria and its people.

“The Holy Father’s role is appreciated by the majority of Syrians, pro- and anti-government, Christians and Muslims,” Archbishop Abou Khazen said.

“In the absence of western ambassadors in Damascus, the Vatican’s choice to stay and the pope’s decision to elevate the nuncio to the rank of cardinal are signs of attention and love. These acts are appreciated by the country’s leaders and people,” he explained.

In his message, Pope Francis spoke of the extremism and terrorism, which he called the basis of the violence. He expressed his solidarity with the Syrian people, who have been battered by five years of conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions more.

State news agency, Sana, published excerpts of the letter and Syrian television and newspapers gave wide coverage to the meeting between Assad and Cardinal Zenari.

Pope Francis appeals “to the president to ensure that international humanitarian law is fully respected with regard to the protection of civilians and access to humanitarian aid.”

At their meeting, Assad congratulated Cardinal Zenari on his new status as a cardinal and his decision to remain in Damascus, despite the conflict.

The president, an Alawi, went on to say that Syria, as a state and as a people, is determined to restore security and stability. He equally renewed his pledge to implement reforms to improve living conditions and achieve the goals of peace, security and development of the country.

“Government leaders, including the president, appreciated the pope’s letter,” the archbishop said. “This could be seen in his expression in the official pictures of the meeting. Assad was happy and wanted to show it, thanking the pope for this historic gesture that was widely echod by Syrian media.”

Archbishop Abou Khazen said, “For us in Aleppo and in many other parts of the country, these are days of hope ahead of liberation and the almost complete reunification of the city.”

Before the violence began, Aleppo was Syria’s second largest city, as well as being its main economic and commercial hub. After 2012, its western sector, home to 1.2 million people, remained under government control, whilst the eastern sector, with some 250,000 people, fell into the hands of extremist groups.

Syrian forces have begun celebrating the almost complete reunification of the city, 90 per cent of which is now under its control.

However, at the same time, the United Nations and the International Red Cross report that civilians are being shot on sight. At least 82 people so far have been killed, including women and children.

“We have lived through an urban war,” the archbishop said, “and feared the worst… We feared a bloodbath, a real bloodbath in house-to-house combat. Since the offensive began, there have been 400 deaths, a terrible, but still limited number.”

The archbishop added, “Yesterday, people began celebrating with roads jammed with cars and the streets filled with people. Today it is raining and people are holed up at home, but they see the rain almost as a sign of fate, a purification after years of violence and bombs that rained down from the sky.”

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