Pope Francis took advantage of midday prayers before some 50,000 people to condemn the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, citing “terrible reports” of dozens of dead, including women and children.
Following his Easter prayer of the Regina Caeli in Saint Peter’s Square, the pontiff denounced the recent chemical bombings, saying that “nothing, nothing can justify the use of such extermination tools against helpless people and populations.”
The pope’s words referenced an attack by Syrian forces on an opposition holdout in Eastern Ghouta Saturday, which reportedly killed at least 70 people. According to news accounts, first responders have accused forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of using “poisonous chlorine gas” in air strikes targeting Douma, the last rebel-held town near Damascus.
“Seventy people suffocated to death and hundreds are still suffocating,” said Raed al-Saleh, head of the White Helmets, a volunteer rescue force.
The pro-opposition Ghouta Media Center reported that a barrel bomb containing Sarin gas had been dropped by a helicopter, and tweeted that more than 75 people had “suffocated,” while another 1,000 people had been wounded.
“There is no good and bad war,” Francis said in his address Sunday, while asking for prayers “for all the deceased, for the wounded, for the families who suffer.”
“Let us pray that the political and military leaders choose the other way, that of negotiation, the only one that can lead to a peace that is not that of death and destruction,” he concluded.
Syria and its allies have called the accusations of a chemical attack a “fabrication,” while the U.S. state department has said that Russia “ultimately bears responsibility” for the alleged attacks, due to its “unwavering support” for the government of Bashar al-Assad.
“President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad,” said U.S. President Donald Trump via Twitter.
Syria’s state news agency Sana called the reports an invention of the Jaish al-Islam rebels who currently control Douma.
Sana said that Jaish al-Islam terrorists are “in a state of collapse” and that their media outlets are fabricating stories of a chemical attack “in an exposed and failed attempt to obstruct advances by the Syrian Arab army.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter Follow @tdwilliamsrome