Vatican calls for Syria ceasefire

APThe Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East is providing aid to thousands of people in Syria

The Vatican has called for an unconditional ceasefire in Syria as it reconfirmed its commitment to establishing peace and reconciliation in the Middle Eastern nation.

More than two million people have fled Syria to escape ongoing violence in the region since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011, triggering a prolonged humanitarian crisis.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former acting Egyptian Vice-President and head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed El Baradei were among those invited to take part in a one-day workshop hosted by the Pontifical Academy for Sciences with the theme: 'Syria: With a death toll of 126,000 and 300,000 orphans in 36 months of war, can we remain indifferent?'.

It had been hoped that significant progress towards a peaceful resolution would be made ahead of the Geneva II conference on Syria due to begin on January 22.

Political figures and Church leaders at the Vatican meeting called for an immediate ceasefire in a joint conference statement, labelling such a move a "humanitarian imperative".

"The first and most urgent step ... should be an immediate ceasefire and end to violence of all kinds, an end without political preconditions," the statement.

"All foreign powers should take immediate steps to stop the flow of arms and arms funding that feed the escalation of violence and destruction."

In May 2013, Pope Francis urged members of the G20 to abandon any attempts to find a military solution to the Syrian conflict, condemning it as a "futile pursuit".

"To build the basis for regional peace, Geneva II needs to ensure inclusive participation of all parties to this conflict, within the region and beyond," the conference statement continued.

"The horror of violence and death in Syria has brought the world to a renewed reflection and thereby, to a new chance for peace. Let us, therefore, all work in harmony and trust to chart an urgent path to reconciliation and reconstruction."

The immediate concern raised was for the huge number of refugees who have been displaced as a result of the conflict, who are suffering "extreme and life-threatening deprivations".

The participants of the conference called on the international community to step up financial and humanitarian support, despite the ongoing violence and instability in the region.

In order to establish a "base of security and reconstruction upon which lasting peace can be built", there must be "an immediate cessation of violence, the start of rebuilding, inter-communal dialogue and progress to resolve all regional conflicts and the participation of all regional and global actors in the pursuit of peace in Geneva II", it was agreed.

"Political transformation is needed" in order to "accompany...the rebuilding of trust," they said.

The conference came on the same day as a statement to the British Parliament by Foreign Secretary William Hague in which he warned that the threat to regional and international security "continues to grow, as the conflict increasingly cannot be contained within the Syrian border".

He told Parliament that the difficulties in getting aid to those who desperately need it were "unacceptable" and that the conflict could only be brought to an end by a political resolution.

"The UN Security Council presidential statement in October last year demanded that aid must be able to reach all Syrians," he said.

"But the UN estimates that 2.5 million people inside Syria are currently not receiving assistance, including a quarter of a million people trapped in besieged or hard to access areas. Countless numbers of people are being denied access to food and medicines, and there are now sickening reports of innocent people dying from malnutrition.

"More than half the Syrian population is now in need of humanitarian assistance: 9.3 million people within Syria, and 2.3 million refugees in the region, who are facing bitter winter conditions."

He said the Geneva II peace conference would be "an important step" to achieving peace in Syria.