We must respond to Pope Francis’s call for a day of prayer and fasting for Syria

It seems a lame thing to say that, having read many articles arguing forcibly for military intervention in Syria and just as many others arguing for caution, it simply isn’t clear to me which course should be taken. Those who favour action both here in the US argue that the “red line” has been crossed by the Assad regime; that chemical warfare has been outlawed by international agreement; that we can’t stand by and do nothing in the face of this perverse twist to an already bloody civil war; and that any intervention will be strictly limited and a “signal” to the regime that such warfare is unacceptable.

Those who argue against a limited strike – and Russia’s position has to be taken into account here – say it is not clear which side is actually the culprit in this particular war crime, and it is just as likely that it is the work of the rebel forces (which are themselves deeply divided); that our recent history of interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan should remind us that intervention results in more deaths and more carnage, not less; that we cannot know what violent response might be expected by the Assad regime and its allies if we do strike; and that only diplomacy – getting all sides to talk around a table – will work in the long run.

Alongside this there is also the Catholic theory of a “just war” which, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (page 496, notes 2308-9) refers to the right of defence rather than aggression and states, inter alia, that “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.” And so on. Thank God I do not have to make the decision over the Syrian conflict.

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But there is something we – and other Christians and people of good will – can do, and that is to respond to Pope Francis’s call for a day of prayer and fasting on September 7 for the cause of peace in Syria. Yesterday the Holy Father issued a clear and passionate statement about Syria, a “cry for peace!” The Pope speaks for us all when he says “How much suffering, how much devastation, how much pain has the use of arms carried in its wake in this martyred country, especially among civilians and the unarmed!” Pleading for “encounter, dialogue and negotiation” Pope Francis rightly warns that “war begets war, violence begets violence”.

September 7 is the vigil of the birth of Our Lady, Queen of Peace”. Christians know that, as Jesus said, some intractable problems can only be healed by fasting as well as prayer; fasting is an ancient tradition, not much in evidence these days outside the dieting industry, where it waxes and wanes in popularity, but still a powerful sign of sorrow, repentance and a serious commitment to the particular prayer intention. The Holy Father concludes his appeal with an invocation to Mary, Queen of Peace, that “she [may] help us to find peace” because “all of us are her children”.

So often in our personal lives we Christians know that it is only through prayer that seemingly insoluble situations are resolved. As the Pope indicates, we also have a responsibility for the wider society, in this case for Syria, because “all men and women of good will are bound by the task of pursuing peace.” So we are obliged to do something and not merely wring our hands.

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