Pope denounces use of chemical weapons after attack in Syria


VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis condemned the use of chemical weapons after an attack killed dozens of innocent men, women and children in Syria.

"There is no good and bad war, and nothing, nothing can justify the use of such instruments of extermination against defenseless people and populations," the pope said April 8 before concluding Divine Mercy Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square.

The suspected chemical-weapon attack occurred late April 7 when Syrian army warplanes allegedly flew over and bombed the eastern town of Douma, located 15 miles north of the Syrian capital, Damascus, according to the Reuters news agency.

The Syrian American Medical Society Foundation reported 42 victims were killed in the attack while hundreds of people, "the majority of whom are women and children, were brought to local medical centers with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent."

Despite witness accounts, the Syrian government denied involvement in the attack. The U.S. State Department denounced "the regime's history of using chemical weapons against its own people" and said that Russia, which supports Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, "ultimately bears responsibility for the brutal targeting of countless Syrians with chemical weapons."

Pope Francis prayed "for all the dead, for the wounded, for the families who suffer" and called for world leaders to abandon the use of war as a means of gaining peace and stability.

"We pray that political and military leaders choose the other way: that of negotiation, the only one that can lead to a peace that is not that of death and destruction," the pope said.

Getting humanitarian aid to desperate populations during the conflict has largely been contingent on the warring sides to agree to a temporary cease fire, according to Stephen Colecchi, the outgoing director of the U.S. bishops' Office of International Justice and Peace. "Sometimes the cease-fires last, sometimes they end almost immediately after the aid reaches them," he said. To date, about $100 million already has been spent in Syria.

The war, now in its seventh year, spawned a huge refugee crisis, as Syrians of all stripes fled the country.

This war of attrition has left the Syrian government seemingly in charge. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops "has repeatedly called for intensive diplomatic efforts to end conflicts in a range of countries, including Syria and (neighboring) Iraq," stated a USCCB Office of International Justice and Peace backgrounder from February on international assistance and diplomacy.

Colecchi estimated that 50 percent of Syria's Christians have fled the country. A similar percentage of Syrians overall have either left Syria or have moved to safer spots within the country. Neighboring Lebanon, with a population of about 4 million, is home to 2 million Syrian refugees, he said. While Lebanon's hospitality is "outstanding," Colecchi added, "Lebanon needs for those people to be able to go back home."

Aleppo, a major Christian city in Syria that was the object of a monthslong siege earlier in the war, is "half-destroyed," Colecchi said. "There are no schools, no hospitals." 

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