On Sept. 7, as the Obama administration lobbied U.S. Senate and House leaders to secure Congressional authorization for a proposed military strike on Syria, Pope Francis led a worldwide day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria and across the Middle East.
Two days later, on Sept. 9, President Obama told Fox News, "I fervently hope that this can be resolved in a non-military way."
[UPDATE 9/10 9:30 p.m.: During a televised speech to the American people, Obama said he had asked Congress delay debate on U.S. military intervention in Syria until the administration had time to assess an alternative plan proposed by Russia. The president acknowledged skepticism that the fresh initiative from Moscow, a key ally of Assad, could be a delaying tactic.]
A non-military response to Assad's use of WMDs? How did the president shift gears so quickly?
As Fox explained
The president was responding to a proposal, formally put forward by the Russians, to have the Assad regime turn over its chemical weapons to international control.
Reportedly, the abrupt shift from warmaking to diplomacy was unscripted.
Secretary of State John Kerry touched off the discussion with an off-hand remark that Syria could only avert military action if it turned over its weapons within a week.
Kerry and his aides afterward claimed the secretary was merely making a "rhetorical" point. But Russia's foreign minister formally proposed the idea to Syria, and the Assad government said it welcomed the plan.
To be clear, Obama also told CNN that the threat of a military strike remained on the table until administration officials "arrive at something that is enforceable and serious.” That said, the New York Times reported
Officials in Syria embraced the idea, as did Britain, France, the United Nations and even some Republican lawmakers in Washington.
Naturally, the latest development has prompted a search for explanations. Some commentators opine that Obama faces an uphill struggle to obtain Congressional authorization for his proposed strike, so a sudden "breakthrough" via Russia might let him off the hook.
So far, the speculation did not include any mention of the power of prayer. Indeed, America's newspaper of record, the Times, essentially ignored the fact that an estimated 100,000 people gathered in St. Peter's Square on Sept. 7 to pray for peace in Syria, though the Washington Post offered some coverage of the pope's initiatives.
During his homily on Sept 7, Francis called on the faithful and all people of good will to pursue non-violent solutions to the problems of Syria, but also to reflect on the need for charity, solidarity and dialogue in their own lives. .
This evening, in reflection, fasting and prayer, each of us deep down should ask ourselves: Is this really the world that I desire? Is this really the world that we all carry in our hearts? Is the world that we want really a world of harmony and peace, in ourselves, in our relations with others, in families, in cities, in and between nations? And does not true freedom mean choosing ways in this world that lead to the good of all and are guided by love?
....I ask the Lord that we Christians, and our brothers and sisters of other religions, and every man and woman of good will, cry out forcefully: violence and war are never the way to peace!
Let everyone be moved to look into the depths of his or her conscience and listen to that word which says: Leave behind the self-interest that hardens your heart, overcome the indifference that makes your heart insensitive towards others, conquer your deadly reasoning, and open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation. Look upon your brother’s sorrow and do not add to it, stay your hand, rebuild the harmony that has been shattered; and all this achieved not by conflict but by encounter!
Earlier in the week, on Sept. 4, Pope Francis sent a letter to the G-20 meeting in Russia, imploring the world leaders assembled there to embrace diplomacy, provide humanitarian assistance to an estimated 2 million Syrian refugees, and reject the proposed U.S. military strike. The pope also organized a meeting for diplomats accredited to the Holy See to present a six point plan to advance a political settlemesnt, as Register correspondent, Edward Pentin reported
The Vatican proposal, entitled “Regarding the Situation in Syria,” focuses on “following general principles,” which include re-launching dialogue and reconciliation, avoiding division of the country into different zones and maintaining its territorial integrity.
The Holy See asks that there be a “place for everyone” in a new Syria, in particular for minorities such as Christians. It says Alawites (President Bashar al-Assad’s ruling sect) must also have guarantees or they may emigrate or risk their own lives by remaining in the country.
If Russia's proposal is formally adopted by Assad, and President Obama is able to retire his plan for a military strike, Pope Francis, no doubt, will be content to give Secretary Kerry, the White House and Putin the credit they are due, while the Vicar of Christ ceaselessly implores the Holy Spirit to help such plans bear fruit under the most desperate conditions.
Francis is playing a long game: his goal is nothing less than an end to the civil war through negotiations that also provide security and civil rights to all religious groups in Syria, including embattled Christians.
Unfortunately, there is a strong possibliity that if the debate over U.S. military intervention fades away, the West will stand by while the death toll mounts in Syria. The prayers for that ravaged nation, and for all the Middle East, must continue -- and only God knows for how long.
UPDATE 9/10: Russia's proposal appears to be gaining traction. Today, the Times reported
A bipartisan group of eight senators joined the international diplomatic momentum on Tuesday to avert an American military attack on Syria over its use of chemical munitions in that country’s civil war, responding positively to a Russian proposal aimed at securing and destroying those weapons.