ROME (CNS) — Representatives of a dozen Syrian opposition groups called for a cease-fire in their homeland and the beginning of an internationally mediated dialogue to bring democracy to the country.

A Syrian girl, injured during violence in the country, is seen after undergoing multiple reconstructive surgeries at the Red Crescent Hospital in Amman, Jordan, July 3. During a July 25-26 meeting in Rome, representatives of a dozen Syrian opposition gro ups called for a cease-fire in their homeland and the beginning of an internationally mediated dialogue to bring democracy to the country. (CNS photo/Ali Jarekji, Reuters)

Meeting in Rome July 25-26, the groups, which included some inspired by Islam, said they are “firmly opposed to any discrimination based on religious confession or ethnicity.”

The 14 men and three women involved in Syria's pro-democracy movements met under the auspices of the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Rome-based Catholic lay group that promotes dialogue and charity.

“While violence is prevailing and on a rampage in our country,” the political opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad felt “it was important to sit together and think about a political solution,” said Faiez Sara, a writer and member of the Democratic Forum, who had been imprisoned for his political activities in Syria.

He said it was time to stop “the killings perpetrated by the regime or committed by the victims of the regime who have taken up weapons.”

Abdul Aziz Alkhayer, a member of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change who was released in 2006 after 14 years in prison, said, “We have paid a huge price for fighting the dictatorship, have spent years in jail for this.”

But, he said, “weapons just kill people, destroy things. They cannot build anything.”

The opposition leaders signed their “Rome Appeal,” calling for a negotiated end to Assad's rule and the beginning of a transition to “a Syria that is democratic, civil and safe for all, without fear and without oppression.”

In addition to insisting on the retreat of government forces, they asked “our fellow citizens in (opposition) the Free Syrian Army and all those bearing arms, to participate in a political process to establish a peaceful, secure and democratic Syria.”

Also July 26, the Catholic bishops of Syria held an abbreviated summer meeting in Aleppo, which had been the scene of fierce fighting.

“In Aleppo, the situation is very tense, but right now there are not problems for the Christians. There are fears that the situation could worsen and that the militants could penetrate the Christian quarters, but that has not happened,” Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo told Fides, the Vatican's missionary news agency.

“If the West wants to help the Syrian people,” he said, “support and pressure for dialogue.”

He said the bishops decided to invite representatives of all the Christian communities in the country to gather July 28. “We will pray together for peace in Syria and discuss urgent questions such as protecting Christians and providing humanitarian aid to all who suffer.”

Syrian Christians, he said, are afraid of “losing what we have obtained over the past 70 years: a non-confessional culture, a pluralism that is a very precious good. We want to live in our country with full rights and obligations. We are afraid that if a fundamentalist or Islamic theocratic government is installed, we will lose the freedom to witness our faith, religious liberty and the freedom of expression, which are indispensable for citizens of a country that guarantees the rights of all.”

— By Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service