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 CNS Story:

POPE-RUSSIA Sep-7-2004 (610 words) With photos. xxxi

Pope prays for Russian siege victims, calls deaths 'cruel epilogue'

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- 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?"

- - -

Contributing to this story was Cindy Wooden.


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