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  • John Thavis

Pope rejects pursuit of military solution in Syria as Vatican convenes diplomats

I’m at the Vatican this week, where Syria is the number one topic of discussion and concern.

We just learned that in a letter sent yesterday to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis urged international leaders to “lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution” in Syria.

It was the latest in a series of Vatican statements signaling opposition to President Obama’s planned attack on Syrian government forces and urging instead a renewed international-backed effort at diplomacy and negotiation.

The pope wrote to Putin because the Russian leader is chairing a G20 summit that Obama is attending, but also perhaps because Russia has been a supporter of the Syrian regime headed by Bashar Hafez al-Assad, and therefore may have some influence with the Syrian leader.

Francis condemned the “senseless massacre now unfolding” in Syria, and said the international community cannot remain indifferent to the suffering of the country’s civilian population. But he said the path to follow was dialogue, because “violence never begets peace.”

The pope’s letter was made public today after a meeting of ambassadors summoned by the Vatican for an urgent discussion of the Syrian situation. Addressing the diplomats, the Vatican’s foreign affairs minister, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, expressed outrage at the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria that left more than 1,400 people dead and called for clarification in identifying those responsible.

He cited Pope Francis’ recent condemnation of the attack: “There is a judgment of God and of history upon our actions which are inescapable!” The Obama administration has blamed the Syrian regime for the attack.

Mamberti said the short-term priority in Syria is to stop the violence, and he warned of “unforeseeable consequences” if the fighting continues. He then listed several essential principles that need to be part of a just solution in Syria:

— Renewal of dialogue between all parties in Syria.

— Preservation of Syria’s unity and territorial integrity.

— Protection of all minorities, including Christians, in the future Syria, as well as respect for religious freedom.

Mamberti also expressed the Vatican’s growing concern about the presence of “extremist groups” in Syria, often from other countries, and said opposition forces should keep their distance from such extremists and openly reject terrorism. This was a point also raised by several of the 71 ambassadors present for the discussion that followed, according to a Vatican spokesman.

When it comes to the issue of a U.S. attack on Syrian government forces, there isn’t much debate going on at the Vatican: everyone here seems to think it would be a very bad idea.

The message from the pope and others is that a U.S. bombing of Syria would not bring peace any closer, would increase suffering in the country, would worsen the flow of refugees, would risk sparking a wider war and could further endanger the Christian community and other religious minorities in Syria.

Pope Francis has called for a universal day of prayer and fasting for peace on Saturday, an appeal that’s struck a chord among other religious leaders, including Muslims in the Middle East.

But it’s clear the pope also wants to make sure the Vatican’s diplomatic voice is heard, and thus his letter to Putin and the convocation of ambassadors.

All this echoes 2003, when Pope John Paul II convened diplomats and strongly warned against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. There are important differences, of course – the United States is not planning an invasion of Syria – but many Vatican officials still point to Iraq as proof that military intervention often opens new chapters of suffering instead of resolving conflicts.

When the United States and other Western powers took military action in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, there was significant support at the Vatican for international “humanitarian intervention” aimed at disarming the aggressor in the wake of ethnic cleansing and what Pope John Paul II called “crimes against humanity.”

But Vatican sources said this week that what Obama has in mind in Syria does not fit the definition of “humanitarian intervention.” Nor is a plan for peace being put forward. And that’s why, in this moment, prayer and fasting are seen not just as a symbolic response, but as a way to promote a new vision and a new international approach to Syria. (For a perceptive treatment of this issue, see Drew Christiansen’s piece in the Washington Post yesterday.)

Along with Middle East and U.S. bishops, several Vatican and church officials have weighed in on the Syrian question in recent days.

Bishop Mario Toso, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said armed intervention in Syria could easily extend the fighting to other countries, a situation that “has all the ingredients to explode in a war of global dimensions.”

Religious orders have enthusiastically supported the pope’s initiatives, and the superior general of the Jesuits, Father Alfonso Nicolas, took the unusual step of categorically rejecting the plan to attack Syria. “I have to admit, I don’t understand what right the United States or France has to act against a country in a manner that will undoubtedly increase the suffering of a population that has already suffered enough,” he said.

The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, has raised doubts about the United States’ attribution of the chemical attack to the Syrian government, saying that many find it “difficult to understand” why the Assad regime would cross the so-called “red line” of chemical weapons use when he appeared to be winning against the rebels.

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