Pope, Middle Eastern bishops make lenten appeal of prayer and fasting; Knights initiate #40BucksForLent
The suffering that residents of the Syrian town of Madaya have experienced recently might be repeated on an exponential scale in one of Syria’s largest cities.
Reuters reports that the United Nations fears for hundreds of thousands of civilians in Aleppo if Syrian government forces encircle rebel-held parts of the city. The UN is warning of a massive new exodus of refugees fleeing a Russian-backed assault:
Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, have launched a major offensive in the countryside around Aleppo, which has been divided between government and rebel control for years. It amounts to one of the most important shifts of momentum in the five year civil war that has killed 250,000 people and already driven 11 million from their homes. Since last week, fighting has already wrecked the first attempt at peace talks for two years and led rebel fighters to speak about losing their northern power base altogether. The United Nations is worried the government advance could cut off the last link for civilians in rebel-held parts of Aleppo with the main Turkish border crossing, which has long served as the lifeline for insurgent-controlled territory. “It would leave up to 300,000 people, still residing in the city, cut off from humanitarian aid unless cross-line access could be negotiated,” the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in an urgent bulletin. If government advances around the city continue, it said, “local councils in the city estimate that some 100,000 — 150,000 civilians may flee.” Aleppo was once Syria’s biggest city, home to two million people.
Meanwhile, bishops in the Middle East and a major Catholic fraternal organization have added their voices to that of Pope Francis in support of the suffering populations in the Middle East. On Sunday, the pope made another urgent appeal for peace in Syria, calling on the international community to spare no effort to bring all the parties in conflict to the negotiating table, Vatican Radio reported.
Speaking to the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square, Francis appealed for “generous solidarity” in order to provide for the needs of these refugees and guarantee them a dignified standard of living. He asked the crowds to pray fervently for peace in Syria.
The Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, has appealed for increased funding to support refugees from the Syrian crisis, saying the Holy See will “continue its humanitarian assistance” to the region over the coming year.
Some of that support could come from the sacrifices of individual Christians as they begin lent, religious leaders suggested.
The Knights of Columbus is asking those considering a Lenten sacrifice to give “40 Bucks for Lent” and use the hashtag #40BucksForLent to help Middle Eastern Christians and other religious minorities suffering religious persecution there.
“Since many people give up something for Lent, we wanted to provide an opportunity for their sacrifice to make a difference — not only in their own life, but in the lives of others,” said K of C Supreme Knight Carl Anderson. “During the Lenten season, we recall Christ’s suffering and death. In turn, remembering and assisting those who are today suffering and dying for their belief in Christ is an excellent way to do good where it is most needed and to enter more deeply into the spirit of this season.”
The Knights’ Christian Refugee Relief Fund has raised nearly $10 million to provide housing, food, medical aid, education and general relief to persecuted Christians and other religious minorities, especially from Iraq and Syria.
The heads of the Chaldean and Melkite churches have called on Christians worldwide to observe a fast on Ash Wednesday and to begin their lenten journey mindful of the plight of persecuted believers in the Middle East.
“The war in Iraq and Syria are taking on apocalyptic dimensions,” said Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako I, in a message obtained by international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. “Without a doubt, we are already facing the largest humanitarian catastrophe since the end of World War II.”
He said that while Christians in the region “are all very thankful for this help,” what is most needed is mercy. “For this reason I would like to ask you at the beginning of this Lenten period: pray and fast for peace in our country! Pray and fast that God has mercy on us! Pray and fast that we may remain in our homelands, that the refugees may return to their villages and cities.”
Damascus, Syria-based Melkite Patriarch Gregorios III Laham, in a separate message obtained by Aid to the Church in Need, also invited Christians to fast and pray, beseeching God to “grant to our country the peace so long desired at last.”