Pope Francis is leading widespread global opposition to Western military action in Syria, proposing a six-point plan in preparation for peace in the country as well as calling for a worldwide day of prayer and fasting. The pontiff’s popularity and proactive approach, which stands in contrast to his predecessor whose influence in foreign affairs was hobbled by personnel problems in the Vatican, is making it harder for the Obama administration and other pro-intervention governments to win the support of their electorates.
The Pope’s efforts, described as the Vatican’s largest peace initiative in 30 years, have been largely driven by Syria’s bishops, whose flocks were protected by the regime of Bashar al-Assad and now fear the threat of rising Islamist persecution. At least two Catholic priests and two Orthodox bishops are being held captive by rebel forces in Syria, and it is feared that an escalation of the conflict will place their lives in further danger.
The document proposes establishment of a ministry dedicated to minorities, insists on the concept of “citizenship with equal dignity,” and emphasizes the importance of respecting human rights and religious freedom. It also stresses that members of the opposition must “distance themselves from extremist groups, isolate them and reject terrorism openly and clearly.”
The last of the six points underlines the importance of ensuring “all necessary cooperation and assistance for the immense task of reconstruction in the country.”
“Absolute priority must be given to ending the violence,” the Holy See says, adding that the “joint effort of the international community is essential.” Furthermore, it stresses the importance of respecting humanitarian law and argues that one “cannot remain passive” in the face of continuing violations of it. “The use of chemical weapons must be stopped and condemned with particular determination,” it says.
The document is particularly strong on humanitarian assistance, saying the situation is “extremely grave” and that it is foreseeable by the end of the year that half of Syria’s population will need assistance. To allow aid to reach all parts of the country, the Vatican plan calls for a ceasefire, even a partial one, and guaranteed safety for aid workers.
Recalling that the Roman Catholic Church is “at the forefront in providing humanitarian aid,” the Holy See also appeals for “solidarity and cooperation” on the part of all governments in the region and nongovernmental organizations.
The document ends by stressing the urgency of the cessation of violence, avoiding a possible “sectarian degeneration” of the conflict. It reiterates the need for dialogue and negotiation and underlines that the focus must be “on the good of the people, not the seeking of positions of power or other unilateral aims.”
On Sept. 7, Muslims and Christians around the world heeded Pope Francis’ call for a day of prayer and fasting which culminated in a peace vigil in Rome.
Francis told the large crowd in St. Peter’s Square that war was “always a defeat for humanity,” that it is caused by “idols, by selfishness, by our own interests,” and that only the cross of Christ will bring “reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue.”
Countless churches across the world took part in the day of prayer, leading the Vatican’s spokesman to describe it as the Roman Catholic Church’s largest peace campaign in at least 30 years.
Diplomats in Rome have been surprised and impressed by the Holy See’s determination in promoting the church’s concerns about the escalating conflict in Syria. Those who attended last week’s briefing of diplomats were also surprised by the detail of the “non paper,” which they saw as an effort by the Holy See to restart the Geneva II negotiations. Those talks, aimed at ending the Syrian conflict and organizing a transition period and post-war reconstruction, stalled earlier this year as the United States was unable to persuade the Syrian opposition to take part.
“The briefing showed us that the Vatican means business; it’s not just rhetoric or platitudes,” one ambassador said. Many noted the high level representation of diplomats attending – 71 countries in all – and see it as a testament to the Holy See’s increasing influence on the world stage under Pope Francis. One diplomat told LIGNET that the Argentine pontiff has such a popular following worldwide that governments in favor of military strikes on Syria “will probably find it very hard to face their electorates if it goes ahead.”
Despite being the world’s smallest state, the Holy See has the world’s oldest diplomatic service and permanent observer status at the United Nations. And as the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, the Pope continues to be an internationally respected figure on moral issues.
Under Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican’s relevance on the international stage declined as the former pontiff was forced to focus on internal troubles. He also may have been ill-served in global diplomacy by his deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who was a canon law expert and not a Vatican diplomat – unusual for that position.
Francis’ forceful stance on Syria is said to mark an end to that impasse.
Although it is not rare for a Pope to call for world peace, Pope Francis’ determination to avert an escalation of the conflict in Syria and bring about a lasting peace is being heralded as a new era for the Holy See on the world stage, one in which the church’s contributions on moral and ethical issues are more widely heeded. It marks a return to the kind of global presence Pope John Paul II showed, and which sometimes proved effective, most notably with regard to Soviet communism.
Although doubts remain about the effectiveness on policy of papal pleas for peace, on this conflict, where global public opinion is mostly opposed to a Western military strike, the Pope’s pronouncements and actions are resonating with many, and governments are beginning to take notice. One can expect the Pope to keep up the pressure until the situation improves.
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11 September 2013