Benedict XVI is calling for open pathways for humanitarian relief to reach Georgia.

[display_podcast]This podcast made available from Vatican Radio

Conflict in the Caucasus

The Pope spoke of the conflict in the Caucasus after he prayed the midday Angelus on Sunday (17 August) with crowds gathered at the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome.

Georgia and Russia engaged in a brief but bloody conflict that began Aug. 7 over the status of the disputed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia reported that it was withdrawing its forces today.

“I am following with close attention and concern the situation in Georgia, and feel particularly close to the victims of the conflict,” the Holy Father said.

“While I offer a special prayer for the repose of the souls of the deceased and express my sincere sympathy for all those in mourning, I appeal for generous relief of the serious harm that the refugees are suffering, especially women and children, who even lack what is necessary to survive.

“I appeal for a prompt opening of humanitarian corridors between the region of South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia, so that the dead who are still abandoned can receive a worthy burial and the wounded may be adequately attended, and that those who long to be reunited with their loved ones may be permitted to do so.”

Benedict XVI affirmed that “ethnic minorities involved in the conflict must be guaranteed safety and the inviolability of their fundamental rights.”

“I hope, finally, that the present ceasefire, agreed to thanks to the contribution of the European Union, might be consolidated and be transformed into a stable peace,” he concluded. “At the same time, I call upon the international com! munity to continue offering its support to achieve a lasting solution, through dialogue and the good will of all.”

Ecumenical plea

Russian military convoy in western Georgia

Meanwhile, Christians of various traditions have joined their voices to call for a halt to conflict.

Patriarch Alexy II, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Patriarch Elias II, the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, called for an end to the fighting and put their Churches’ resources at the disposal of the peace process, L’Osservatore Romano reported.

Quoting the Eni news agency, the Vatican paper noted Alexy II’s call for negotiations to “respect the traditions, viewpoints and hopes of the peoples of Georgia and Ossetia.” He offered the availability of his ecclesial community “to collaborate with the Georgian Orthodox Church in favoring peace.”

The World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches also released a joint statement “expressing our alarm and distress at the violent events of recent days in the Caucasus.”

“We support the call for military forces to return to positions held before the current violence,” the statement said. “We recognize that good relations between neighbors are a gift of God and an obligation of all people. We ask that our member churches pray for the people of Georgia and its neighbors, and for all who in these days work for peace and reconciliation.”

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy, AUG. 18, 2008 (