VATICAN CITY — Political authorities and leading Church figures, taking part in a Vatican summit on resolving the conflict in Syria, have called for an immediate cease-fire, saying it is a “humanitarian imperative.”

They have also urged generous help towards reconstruction even before political and social questions are resolved, intercommunity dialogue and the full participation of all regional and global actors.

The Jan. 13 meeting — hosted by the Pontifical Academy for Sciences under the theme “Syria: With a Death Toll of 126,000 and 300,000 Orphans in 36 Months of War, Can We Remain Indifferent?” — was held ahead of the Geneva II conference on Syria that will begin Jan. 22.

The United Nations-backed talks will aim to forge an agreement between the Syrian regime and opposition groups to form a transitional government.

“The horror of violence and death in Syria has brought the world to a renewed reflection and, thereby, to a new chance for peace,” the experts said in a final statement. “Let us, therefore, all work in harmony and trust to chart an urgent path to reconciliation and reconstruction.”

The participants, who included the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei, and the American economist Jeffrey Sachs said the “first and most urgent step” is an “immediate cease-fire” without political preconditions. This includes an end to the arming of both sides by “foreign powers,” they said, adding that it is a “humanitarian imperative” that represents the “first step to reconciliation.”

Humanitarian assistance should be immediate, they continued, and should treat the “countless numbers of refugees” in the region who are suffering “extreme and life-threatening deprivations.” They called on the international community to provide generous “financial and human support” to help rebuild the country “before all political and social questions are resolved.”

The young and the poor should be given a “preferential role” in these reconstruction efforts, they said, as the Syrian economy is in a “state of collapse,” and youth unemployment is “pervasive.”


Rebuilding Process

Next, the political experts called for “inter-community dialogue” and reconciliation that tends to the “urgent needs of spiritual and community rebuilding.” After years of inter-communal violence, the statement said the Holy See is “committed to supporting all religious faiths and communities” in Syria.

Recognizing that the country’s conflict is fueled by outside powers, the participants noted positively that the Syrian people themselves have lived in peace throughout most of their history “and can do so again.” But they also acknowledged that the regional conflicts that have “engulfed” Syria must also be addressed “in order to create the conditions for long-lasting peace.”

Geneva II must ensure “inclusive participation” of all parties to the conflict, within the region and beyond, they added. And they noted the “vital importance” of the recent agreement reached between Iran and the U.N. Security Council on its nuclear program. That agreement gave “great hope” that an era of “grave distrust” between Iran and other nations could be followed by one of “trust and even cooperation.” The agreement could provide a “vital foundation” to lasting peace in Syria, they said, as would a breakthrough in the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“These, then, are preconditions for lasting peace,” they concluded: “an immediate cessation of violence, the start of rebuilding, inter-communal dialogue and progress to resolve all regional conflicts and the participation of all regional and global actors in the pursuit of peace in Geneva II.”

Such measures, they added, would provide a “base of security and reconstruction upon which lasting peace can be built.”

“Political transformation is needed,” they said, which is “not a precondition for ending violence,” but will, rather, “accompany the cessation of violence and the rebuilding of trust.”


Papal Comments

They closed by quoting Pope Francis’ words from the Vigil of Prayer for Peace in Syria last September, in which he said that “violence and war are never the way to peace.”

“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,” he said. “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!”

During his annual “State of the World” speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See on Jan. 13, the Pope again called for renewed political will to end the conflict in Syria. “At the same time, full respect for humanitarian law remains essential. It is unacceptable that unarmed civilians, especially children, become targets,” he said.

In addition to the presentations from ElBaradei and Sachs, other talks at the Jan. 13 Vatican workshop were made by Thomas Walsh, a U.S. expert in interreligious peace-building and security; Pyotr Stegny, a former Russian ambassador to Israel and expert in Russian diplomacy and foreign policy in the Middle East; Joseph Maila, a Lebanese expert on the Middle East, Islam and politics; Miguel Angel Moratinos, a Spanish diplomat who served seven years as the European Union special representative for the Middle East peace process; Thierry de Montbrial, a French economist and expert in international relations; and William Vendley, secretary general of religions for Peace International.

The workshop also heard from Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, Syria, and the opening address was given by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Others present included Cardinal Georges Cottier, theologian emeritus of the pontifical household, former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations in Geneva.

Such a Vatican-sponsored meeting on a conflict is rare. Observers say it underlines Pope Francis’ concerns for Syria and peace in the Middle East in general.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.