VATICAN CITY — In the latest move showing Pope Francis’ determination to prevent further bloodshed in Syria, the Holy Father has sent a letter to leaders of the G20 group of nations who are meeting in Russia, urging them “to lay aside the futile pursuit” of a military solution to the conflict and instead renew their commitment to dialogue and negotiation.
News of the Pope’s appeal came as the Vatican briefed the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See Sept. 5, during which the Holy See issued a rare and detailed six-point program for peace as an alternative to the use of violence.
In his Sept. 4 letter, addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is chairing this year’s G20 meeting in St. Petersburg that opened yesterday, the Pope said it is “regrettable that, from the very beginning of the conflict in Syria, one-sided interests have prevailed and in fact hindered the search for a solution that would have avoided the senseless massacre now unfolding.”
He added that G20 leaders “cannot remain indifferent to the dramatic situation of the beloved Syrian people, which has lasted far too long and even risks bringing greater suffering to a region bitterly tested by strife and needful of peace.”
“To the leaders present, to each and every one, I make a heartfelt appeal for them to help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution,” the Holy Father said. “Rather, let there be a renewed commitment to seek, with courage and determination, a peaceful solution through dialogue and negotiation of the parties, unanimously supported by the international community.”
The Holy Father also said the leaders have a “moral duty to do everything possible to ensure humanitarian assistance” reaches all those affected by the conflict, also beyond Syria’s borders.
Principles for Peace
Earlier, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s foreign minister, held a special briefing at the Vatican for all ambassadors accredited to the Holy See to inform them of the “significance of Pope Francis' initiative” to hold a special day of fasting and prayer on Sept. 7.
But many of the diplomats were surprised to also be handed a three-page "non paper", or aide-memoire, detailing the Holy See’s concerns for Syria and a list of six points which it considers “important for preparing a possible [peace] plan for the future of Syria.”
The document, 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.
“Such a risk would make it more difficult to reach a compromise with them,” the Holy See says, and it argues that all minorities must be involved in preparing any new constitution and laws.
The document proposes the 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 the importance of asking “members of the opposition to 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.”
Elsewhere, the document recalls the “numerous and heartfelt” interventions by the Pope on the crisis, as well as those by the Holy See.
“Absolute priority must be given to ending the violence,” the Holy See says, adding that the “joint effort of the international community is essential.”
It stresses the importance of respecting humanitarian law and 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’s 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, it calls for a ceasefire, even a partial one, and guaranteed safety for aid workers.
Recalling that the 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 non-governmental 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.”
A diplomat who attended the briefing said he and his colleagues were “surprised at the detail of the program,” which they saw as an effort on the Holy See’s part to restart the Geneva II negotiations.
Those talks, expected to take place in late 2013, are aimed at ending the Syrian conflict and organizing a transition period and post-war reconstruction. But Geneva II has so far stalled, as the United States has been unable to persuade the opposition to take part.
“The briefing showed us that the Vatican means business; it’s not just rhetoric or platitudes,” the diplomat said, and he noted the high level of representation at the meeting in the Old Synod Hall.
“All ambassadors from the G20 were there; it was in effect a full house, essentially a three-line whip,” he said.
Day of Prayer and Fasting
In the meantime, many Church groups have mobilized to take part in tomorrow’s day of prayer and fasting for peace in the Middle East. At the vigil in St. Peter’s Square that evening, diplomats will be placed alongside Pope Francis.
The Holy Father is expected to arrive at 6:30pm, and sources say it is likely he will remain there in prayer for a “considerable part of the time.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent and a contributor to EWTN News Nightly.