BRESSANONE, Italy – Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday urged an immediate end to hostilities in South Ossetia and the start of negotiations between Russia and Georgia over the contested province.
Following a weekly Sunday prayer, Benedict expressed "profound anguish" over the fighting in Georgia and its breakaway province, deploring that the conflict "has already caused a great number of innocent victims and forced a great number of civilians to leave their homes."
He made an appeal for peace in the name of the common Christian roots shared by the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Christians. A great majority of Georgians and Russians are Orthodox.
Calling for "an immediate end to military actions," the pope urged all sides to "refrain, also in the name of the common Christian heritage, from further confrontations and violent retaliations that could degenerate into a wider conflict."
Russia expanded its bombing blitz Sunday against tiny neighbor Georgia, a U.S. ally, targeting the country's capital for the first time. Georgia tried to retake control of separatist South Ossetia, which has close ties with Russia, in a military operation this week.
The pope urged the international community and influential countries to "make every effort to support and promote initiatives aimed at reaching a peaceful and lasting solution, in favor of an open and respectful coexistence." He said Roman Catholics were joining Orthodox Christians in praying for such an outcome.
Benedict spoke to a crowd of 9,000 gathered in the main square in front of the twin-towered cathedral of Bressanone, a town in the Italian Alps where the pontiff is spending a two-week vacation.
The traditional prayer was one of Benedict's few appearances during his stay in this northeastern Italian town, where he had vacationed several times before becoming pope.
On Monday evening, he is scheduled to return to his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo in the hills outside Rome.