Russian patriarch on Syria peace bid

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Russian Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Kirill on Saturday started a peacemaking bid to unrest-swept Syria for talks with President Bashar al-Assad and other leaders, officials said.

"I am deeply convinced that all the problems can be solved peacefully and through dialogue," Kirill told journalists at Damascus airport, the Russian news agencies RIA Novosti and Interfax reported.

"The most important thing is that human blood is not spilled. History teaches us that when human blood is spilled it will be hard to solve the problem," he said.

Patriarch Kirill is due to meet Assad on Sunday and travel on to Lebanon the next day for talks with President Michel Suleiman, the church said in a statement.

It did not explicitly tie the trip to the eight months of violence gripping Russia's traditional regional ally, but a spokesman for the patriarch said Kirill was travelling in a peacemaking role.

"His Holiness the patriarch is travelling to the region with a mission that includes that of peacemaker," spokesman Igor Yakimchuk told Interfax. "Most likely, he will issue a call for a dialogue between all sides."

Kirill will also meet with Ignatius Zakka I, the Syriac Orthodox Church Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, who is based in Damascus and operates independently while maintaining close relations with Moscow.

Christians account for between four and nine percent of Syria's predominantly Muslim population.

Russia has rejected tough UN sanctions against Assad's regime for his deadly crackdown on the opposition, fearing that the move could lead to foreign military intervention similar the one Moscow opposed in Libya.

But past bids by Moscow to force Assad to accept political reforms and end the violence have been fruitless, leading to a warning from President Dmitry Medvedev in October for the Syrian leader to either change course or step down.

© 2011 AFP

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