VATICAN CITY — The Vatican is to propose an urgent cease-fire in Syria at a Vatican-hosted meeting of diplomats and foreign-policy experts later this month.

In an interview with Vatican Radio Jan. 2, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that is holding the Jan. 13 meeting, said a cessation of hostilities was vital “in order to allow humanitarian aid, to create humanitarian corridors that at the moment don’t exist, and the cessation of persecution against Christians and so-called interreligious martyrdom.”

Syria’s Christians fear they are being targeted systematically by Islamist rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, and there have been a number of documented attacks on Christian communities and individuals.

Bishop Sorondo’s comments come just days after a Syrian government delegation visited the Vatican to present a message from President Assad explaining his position. The delegation, which included Minister of State Joseph Sweid, an assistant foreign-affairs minister and Syria’s ambassador to the Holy See, met Dec. 28 with the Holy See’s secretary of state, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, and the secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti.

Pope Francis has said a military solution to the Syrian conflict would be “futile.”

On Dec. 20, the Register disclosed the Pope had taken the unusual step of organizing a meeting of experts on Jan. 13 to discuss possible solutions to the Syrian conflict. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences has lined up an international panel of experts in what some diplomatic sources say is an attempt to influence the United Nations-backed “Geneva II” talks, which will begin Jan. 22. Those talks will bring together the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition to discuss a possible transitional government with full executive powers.

Those attending the Vatican meeting include Mohamed El Baradei, a former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a prominent Egyptian politician who helped lead the uprising against former Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the American economist Jeffrey Sachs and French professor of international relations Thierry de Montbrial.

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and a predecessor of Archbishop Mamberti, will also be attending. Former British prime minister and Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair has also been invited, but his attendance hasn’t yet been confirmed.

 

Seeking a ‘Transitional Authority’

In his interview with Vatican Radio, Bishop Sorondo said the ideal solution to the conflict would be to promote the creation of a possible “transitional authority” in order to organize an election.

“They have a constitution, but must respect it,” the Argentinian bishop said. “And at the same time, we want to combat trafficking in persons, prostitution — issues dear to the Pope, together with the globalization of indifference. These are some of our suggested ideals.”

The chancellor said the meeting is in line with the commitment shown by the Pope. The Holy Father spoke out firmly in support of a resolution to the conflict in his message and blessing urbi et orbi (to the city of Rome and the world) on Christmas Day.

“I remember his fast [on Sept. 7], at a time when the situation was dramatic, and his letter to President Putin, then president of the G20, in which he asked the governments concerned to reconsider the issue of bombing, a gesture that — as we know — had the desired effect,” he said.

Bishop Sorondo added that the Vatican wanted to promote the Jan. 13 meeting “to study some solutions and offer the Pope a few more elements.”

Asked about the possibility of Geneva II finding agreement on Syria, Bishop Sorondo said the very fact they are having a meeting means that there is a chance. “Let’s hope so. It is very difficult, but I think that, just as we avoided the bombing, something can be obtained at this meeting. I hope for the creation of humanitarian corridors.”

The Holy See views the resumption of the U.N. peace process, with the U.S. and Russia now working together to stop violence, as having the potential to keeping Islamists at bay and find a pragmatic long-term solution for Syria’s complex internal divisions. It also hopes it might help ease tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which is a strong supporter of the Assad regime.

 

Vatican Peacemaking Efforts

Not since the Iraq War of 2003 has the Holy See been so active in peacemaking efforts. In September last year, it took the rare step of assembling diplomats accredited to the Holy See to present them with a detailed peace plan for the country.

The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, estimated yesterday that more than 73,000 people lost their lives in 2013 — including 22,436 civilians — making it the bloodiest year of the conflict. The total number of casualties since the war began in March 2011 is thought to be 130,000, most of whom are combatants on both sides.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.