VATICAN CITY - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent a message to Pope Francis Saturday, that state media said expressed his determination to defend Syrians of all religions against hardline Islamists among the rebels.
The message was passed on through a Syrian government delegation that held talks at the Vatican with the pontiff's Secretary of State Pietro Parolin and foreign affairs official Dominique Mamberti.
"The delegation brought a message from President Assad for the Holy Father and explained the position of the Syrian government," a statement said.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency said Assad expressed his government's "determination to exercise its right to defend all its citizens, whatever their religion, against the crimes committed by the takfiri (Sunni Muslim extremist) bands who attack them in their homes, in their places of worship and in their neighbourhoods."
Assad's regime prides itself on its secularism. While the rebels fighting for its overthrow are mainly Sunni, the government draws much of its support from Assad's own Alawite minority, as well as from Christians and other minorities.
Assad said the conflict could be resolved only by a "national dialogue between Syrians without foreign interference, because the Syrian people is the sole master of its own destiny and it alone should its leadership."
He condemned the "military, logistic and material support being provided to the terrorists by neighbouring countries," an allusion to the aid being provided to the rebels through Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
The pope, who was elected in March, used his first "Urbi et Orbi" speech on Christmas Day to plead for humanitarian aid access in Syria and an end to the violence.
"Too many lives have been shattered in recent times by the conflict in Syria, fuelling hatred and vengeance," the 77-year-old pope said on Wednesday.
"Let us continue to ask the Lord to spare the beloved Syrian people further suffering, and to enable the parties in conflict to put an end to all violence and guarantee access to humanitarian aid."
The conflict is estimated to have killed more than 126,000 people and displaced millions since it first started out as peaceful anti-regime protests in 2011.
Earlier this month, the pontiff called for prayers for 12 nuns seized from their convent in Syria.
In September he organised a global day of prayer for peace in Syria, speaking out against the prospect of Western military intervention.