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BY John Thavis and Cindy Wooden
VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II prayed for the more than 330 victims of the Russian school siege, calling their deaths a “cruel epilogue” to a savage attack.
In a telegram Sept. 4, the Pope said the takeover of the school in the North Ossetia province town of Beslan was a “vile and heartless act of aggression against defenseless children and families.”
The Pope once again condemned “every form of terrorism” and said he hoped that a “spiral of hatred and violence would not prevail.”
The school siege ended Sept. 3 in a shootout between police and the hostage-takers, believed to be Chechen rebels. More than 700 people were injured and some 450 hospitalized. About half of the dead and injured were children.
Some feared the tragedy could set off revenge attacks in the area. Most residents of North Ossetia are Orthodox Christians, while the neighboring breakaway republic of Chechnya is predominantly Muslim.
The papal telegram offered prayers for the eternal repose of the victims and words of comfort for the families. He also expressed his affection for the Russian people “in this moment of anguish.”
He prayed that the Virgin Mary, “so deeply venerated by the Christians of Russia,” would inspire wisdom and efforts toward reconciliation in the region.
At a papal Mass in Loreto, Italy, Sept. 5, the Pope and others offered prayers “for the Russian people, stricken by the inhuman violence of this tragic hostage-taking, for all the dead, for the wounded, for the many innocent young victims and for the families so sorely tried.”
Before the Mass began, Archbishop Angelo Comastri of Loreto announced an Italian relief plane had left that morning to deliver medicine and other aid to the wounded in Beslan.
When reports of the death toll began to arrive at the Vatican Sept. 3, the Pope, who was staying at his residence outside Rome, went to a private chapel to pray, a spokesman said.
In Milan, Orthodox Bishop Teofan of Stravropol and Vladikavkaz, the Russian Orthodox diocese that includes the town of Beslan, described to hundreds of religious leaders from around the world how he personally carried wounded and dead children away from the school.
The bishop spoke Sept. 5 at a meeting on religions and peace sponsored by the Rome-based Community of Sant'Egidio.
“How can they claim to be fighting for freedom when they kill children?” he said.
The bishop asked all people of good will to unite “against the evil of terrorism, which can strike in New York as well as in Madrid or in Beslan or anywhere.”
“What I saw was terrible, and I ask you all to give us the moral support we need,” he said. The bishop thanked the Pope for his prayers and words of support.
Bishop Teofan said that as soon as he heard that children and adults were being held hostage, he rushed to Beslan and offered to serve as a mediator.
“But every attempt at dialogue was refused,” he said.
“They put all the children in a gym where there wasn't even room for them to sit down,” the bishop said. “They strung a rope between the two basket hoops and forced the children to hang grenades from it.”
“On the third day, the terrorists exploded two bombs, which was what killed most of the children. Those who tried to flee were shot in the back,” he said.
“I myself closed the eyes of several children killed that way,” the bishop said. “How can someone who acts like that call himself a liberator?”
Defining the Cold War as the “third world war,” Cardinal Renato Martino said terrorism appears to have unleashed the “fourth world war” in a way that touches almost everyone in every part of the globe.
The cardinal, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, spoke Sept. 6 at the interreligious meeting in Milan.
Terrorism on the scale seen since Sept. 11, 2001, has become a type of war outside the bounds of “all of the political and juridical canons consolidated by a very long tradition” for defining war and regulating combat, he said.
The reaction, the cardinal said, particularly in the “preventative war” on Iraq proclaimed by the United States and its coalition partners, is also outside the bounds of traditionally accepted definitions of national self-defense.
Cardinal Martino previously has said that the war in Iraq was not justified, but that once the coalition forces invaded, they had an obligation to stay and to provide security while the new Iraqi government is formed and consolidated.
The cardinal said two aspects of “the war of terrorism and the war on terrorism” are completely new.
The first regards the ability of terrorists to strike in one place, yet make an “interruption” into the daily lives of people around the globe, he said.
The immediacy of news coverage brings images of the attacks into everyone's homes, the cardinal said, and the unexpected and horrifying acts make people feel that they may not be safe anywhere, including their offices or their schools.
“With terrorism, war is no longer a far-off event, but is terribly close,” Cardinal Martino said.
The cardinal also said that, while war always has been horrible and has “sinisterly shone light on the abyss” of human hearts, “the war we are living through at this moment is particularly disturbing because these acts sometimes are committed in the name of God.”
Cardinal Martino said neither politicians nor people of faith could afford to be simplistic when looking at what triggers or contributes to terrorism.
The new world tensions combine more than one motivation: historical tensions among peoples, “economic recriminations caused by great poverty,” the search for new political assets, “the vindication of cultural diversity” or other factors, he said.
The cardinal said people also cannot ignore the fact that international arms trade makes it easy for disgruntled groups to get weapons, frequently using them against the country that provided them.
Because the factors contributing to terrorism are so complex, he said, the response must be as well. Because the causes are complex, “they can be removed only with joint action by a number of local and international actors,” he added.
The Christian contribution, he said, must be a more concerted effort to teach and live the truth that God is love and demands that those who believe in him love all men and women.