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Syrian refugees, fleeing the violence in their country, cross the border into the Kurdish region of northern Iraq Sept. 4. (CNS photo/Haider Ala, Reuters)

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has released the text of a letter sent to President Barack Obama voicing opposition to the president’s proposed military action in Syria. President Obama, who is in St. Petersburg, Russia for the G20 summit this week, has asked Congress to authorize an intervention in Syria in response to what the administration believes were chemical attacks against Syrian civilians by the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The letter, signed by USCCB president Cardinal Timothy Dolan and chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace Bishop Richard E. Pates, expresses “absolute condemnation of the use of chemical weapons.” It goes on to state that the bishops’ focus is “on saving lives by ending the conflict, not fueling it.”

We have heard the urgent calls of the Successor of Saint Peter, Pope Francis, and our suffering brother bishops of the venerable and ancient Christian communities of the Middle East.  As one, they beg the international community not to resort to military intervention in Syria.  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 find a strong resonance in American public opinion that questions the wisdom of intervention and in the lack of international consensus.

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.”

The longstanding position of our Conference of Bishops is that the Syrian people urgently need a political solution.  We ask the United States to work urgently and tirelessly 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.

Opposition to military intervention was also the subject of an interview given by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Father Adolfo Nicolas. Father Nicolas did not mince words in expressing his opposition to the Obama administration’s proposed action, calling it “a terrible mistake” that threatens to “bring us back to barbarism.”

We have right here three different problems that it is important to state clearly. The first is that all abuse of power is to be condemned and rejected. And, with all respect for the people of the United States, I think that a military intervention like the one being planned is itself an abuse of power. The US has to stop acting and reacting like the big boy of the neighborhood of the world. This leads inevitably to abuse, harassment and bullying of the weaker members of the community.

The second is that if there has been use of chemical weapons we still have to probe in a way that is clear to the whole world that one party in the conflict and not the other has used them. It is not enough that some members of the punishing Government make a statement of conviction. They have to convince the world, so that the world can trust in them. This confidence does not happen today, and many have already started speculation about the ulterior motives that the USA may have in the projected intervention.

And the third, that the means considered adequate to punish the abuse do not harm the very victims of the original abuse, once it has been proved to exist. Past experience teaches us that this is practically impossible (even if we call the victims "collateral damage") and the results increase the suffering of the ordinary innocent and poor people. We all know that the great concern of the Wise Elders and Religious Founders of all traditions and cultures was "how to reduce human suffering?" It is very worrying that in the name of justice we plan an attack that will increase the suffering of the victims.

Both the USCCB’s statement and Father Nicolas’ interview reference Pope Francis’ frequently expressed opposition to military intervention in Syria. On Sunday during his Angelus address, the Holy Father announced that this Saturday, September 7, will be a special day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria. Francis is scheduled to lead a five-hour prayer vigil for peace that evening in St. Peter's Square, an event Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said will be the largest of its kind in decades.
 
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Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.
 
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