Deep sorrow over Syria echoed across the Vatican on Christmas Day as Pope Benedict XVI urged warring parties to end a 21-month-old civil war.
“May peace spring up for the people of Syria, deeply wounded and divided by a conflict which does not spare even the defenseless and reaps innocent victims,” the pope said in his traditional Christmas message, delivered from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.
“Once again, I appeal for an end to the bloodshed, easier access for the relief of refugees and the displaced, and dialogue in the pursuit of a political solution to the conflict.”
Sunni Muslims make up three-quarters of Syria’s 22.5 million people. But Christians from several denominations represent 10% of the population, and they have been drawn into a civil war that has largely been fought by the Alawite-dominated government and the largely Sunni opposition.
Christians have been historically protected by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and have been reluctant to take sides. Some Christians in Syria abhor al-Assad, and others support the government. Many have been apprehensive about the prospects of an opposition government and fear the influx of jihadist types in rebel ranks.
Jaramana, a town in the Damascus suburbs with a Christian and Druze population that has mostly been pro-regime, endured a flare-up of violence Monday night.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels ambushed and killed a military intelligence officer Monday night. The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition network, said Tuesday that the Free Syrian Army rebels killed five military intelligence soldiers in clashes with government forces.
A report issued last week by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria focused on sectarian hostilities and referred to the dangers that Christians face. It cited a car bombing outside a bakery in Jaramana and the kidnapping of Christians in September.
Before the conflict started, the largest Christian communities were in the Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs regions, it said. But many Christians have fled their homes because of the violence.
Homs Christians have escaped to Damascus, and some have made their way to Beirut. Armenians in Syria have sought refuge in Armenia.
Syria’s Armenian Orthodox and other Christian communities “have sought protection by aligning themselves with the Government, with the consequence that they have come under attack from anti-Government armed groups,” the report said.
Some Christians have formed “armed self-defense groups to protect their neighborhoods from anti-Government fighters by establishing checkpoints around these areas.”
More than 40,000 Syrians have been killed since March 2011, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced from their homes. At least 24 people were killed Tuesday, the LCC said.
Tuesday’s violence occurred after two days of air assaults on Syrian civilians waiting in line for bread. At least 15 people were killed by an air assault in Homs province Monday, a day after more than 100 were killed at a bakery in Hama province, opposition activists said.
Both bombings took place in areas known for anti-government sentiment. The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency blamed “armed terrorist groups” for the Hama province attack.
Doctor: Mystery gas kills six, injures dozens
A doctor in Homs said six people have died after exposure to a mysterious gas. Dr. Abu al Fida said he treated about 30 of the more than 60 people who were affected by the gas this week.
He said those who were close to the source of the gas suffered symptoms such as paralysis, seizures, muscle spasms and, in some cases, blindness. Those who were farther away from the source suffered difficulty breathing, disorientation, hallucinations, nervousness and a lack of limb control similar to excessive tear gas exposure.
Al Fida said those affected responded well to atropine, which is used to treat sarin gas patients, but it is unclear what the substance may have been.
He said the gas appeared as a momentary white flash that went clear.
Opposition activist Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said six rebel fighters died after inhaling a white gas that had no smell.
“Gas was released and spread in the area after members of the regime forces threw canister bombs,” Abdulrahman said. “… The activists said that everyone who (inhaled) the gas felt severe headaches, and some had seizures.”
CNN cannot independently confirm government or opposition reports from Syria because the government has severely restricted access by journalists.
Diplomatic front: More talks, but no clear action
Diplomats have been working for a political solution to the Syrian conflict, an initiative that has gone nowhere so far. There were few public details about any peace plans after a Monday meeting between al-Assad and U.N. peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
But the LCC on Tuesday laid out its own demands for peace talks. It said it would reject any initiative in which Syrians would be “forced to choose between accepting unfair compromises or the continuation of the regime’s crimes against them.” The group also warned against granting the government “more time to continue to destroy and kill.”
The LCC said that the president and his officials must leave power in order for any initiative to work, and that any plan to give the government immunity against prosecution would be “immediately rejected, as it threatens the chance for Syrians to succeed in achieving justice.”
In Bahrain, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council has called for an immediate end to violence in Syria, and it pledged its full support of the opposition, according to Kuwaiti state-run news.
Members of the group, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have strongly supported the Syrian opposition. The four other Gulf Cooperation Council members are the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman.