08/11/2016, 17.37
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Vicar of Aleppo fears a pitched battle, Christians and Muslims pray for peace

Mgr Georges Abou Khazen is stuck in Beirut because the access roads to Aleppo are closed. Speaking to AsiaNews he talked about the faithful’s fears. The situation has been "critical" for days, but in the last few hours, bread, vegetables, and water have been available. Moscow announces a three-hour suspension in its bombing. For the UN, it “is not enough.”

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Stuck in Beirut and unable to return "because the road has been closed" for days as a result of fighting, and only “partially reopened in some directions”, Mgr Georges Abou Khazen, Vicar Apostolic of Aleppo of the Latins, has been waiting anxiously in the Lebanese capital to travel to the city currently the main battleground in the Syrian conflict.

From talking to his aides and faithful in the city, with whom he is close and constant contact, the prelate confirms that "the situation is critical, and people are afraid”. There is a real fear of an "escalation of the fighting," even if residents – Christians and Muslims – "are praying unceasingly for peace".

In recent days, fighting between government forces and rebel militias has intensified. As Syria's second largest city, Aleppo has become a symbol of a war that is in its fifth year and has claimed the lives of more than 280,000 people and displaced millions.

Analysts and experts point out that the conquest of the city would be the mother of all battles, by either side, and would probably give a major if not decisive push to the conflict.

Half of Aleppo, once Syria’s economic and commercial hub, is held by so-called rebel groups, mostly jihadists (Islamic state) and Islamic extremist movements like the al-Nusra Front, the local offshoot of al Qaeda. Many of the weapons used by the "insurgents" have been provided by Western nations, Gulf States, and Turkey.

Moscow announced that Russian forces are due to suspend military action in Aleppo for three hours to allow in humanitarian aid.

The "humanitarian window" will be in place between 10:00 (07:00 GMT) and 13:00, a Russian Defence Ministry official said. For United Nations officials, that “is not enough" to ease the suffering of an exhausted population.

The announcement came as the rebel forces made gains on the ground against forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Earlier the last doctors in the rebel-held east of the city appealed in a letter to US President Barack Obama to have the bombing stop and come to the aid of the 250,000 civilians.

Speaking to AsiaNews, Mgr Georges Abou Khazen said that "the situation has been critical" for days, especially for the "lack of supplies and diesel."

In the last hours, said the vicar, "the general picture appears to have slightly improved. Vegetables and bread have been brought in; there is water, but no power.”

"Faced with an escalation of the conflict, the civilian population does not know what to expect for the future," he added, noting a " feeling of anticipation for the imminence of a great battle, a pitched battle that everyone hopes to avoid, because it is civilians who will pay the most" for its consequences.

For the apostolic vicar, hope lies with "diplomacy to prevail and that the recent meeting between Erdogan and Putin" can help break the deadlock.

 "If Turkey closes the borders much of the problem would be solved," the prelate said, because “jihadists would lack weapons and supplies”. 

Pope Francis mentioned the escalating violence last Sunday during the Angelus when he spoke about “the civilian victims of the war”.

"We are grateful for the pope’s words,” said Mgr Abou Khazen. The pontiff “continues to pray for us and has never failed to show his closeness. Christians and Muslims thank him and say that if the situation is holding and events have not yet precipitated it is thanks to his intervention and prayers.”

It is all "in the hands of the great powers," the bishop concludes, as he prepares to return to Aleppo in the coming hours.

"Before we could get into the city from the south, but now the battle rages on, and I do not know what will be the access route. Maybe through the north, but we are still waiting for news."

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