VATICAN CITY —  Pope Benedict XVI has expressed his concerns over the military campaign in Libya, a sentiment echoed by some Vatican officials who reportedly fear the conflict may turn into a protracted war with civilian casualties.

Speaking to pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square March 20 for the recitation of the Angelus, the Pope appealed “to those who have political and military responsibilities to concern themselves above all with the safety and well-being of the citizens, guaranteeing access to humanitarian aid.”

Allied forces, made up mainly of U.S., British and French military, began a series of strikes against Libya’s air defenses March 19 as part of a United Nations-approved effort to protect pro-democracy protesters from retaliation by Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Last week, Gadhafi threatened to attack the protesters, mostly located in and around Benghazi in eastern Libya, “without mercy.”

The Pope said he was following the events with great concern and praying for those involved in “the dramatic situation.” He added that he was also praying that “peace and harmony would soon come to Libya and the entire North African region.”

As is the case with most international conflicts, the Pope stopped short of explicitly taking sides, instead describing events in the country as “worrying news” and saying he was “following the latest events with great apprehension.” The Vatican says, at least for now, it has no more to say officially about the military action beyond what the Pope said Sunday.

The Italian daily La Stampa claims that the Vatican recognizes the legitimacy of humanitarian air raids against Gadhafi’s forces. Similar to its position on the war in Afghanistan, it reportedly acknowledges that such intervention may be necessary. But unidentified diplomatic sources cited in Famiglia Cristiana, an Italian Catholic monthly, also claim some officials have made no secret of their unhappiness that the international community did not pursue dialogue with the Libyan regime — of any kind — before taking military action.

It adds they are reportedly concerned that the goals and interests of the allied forces are unclear and that the military action could turn into a protracted war. If that happens, they fear that humanitarian concerns “will take a back seat.” 

The apostolic vicar in Tripoli, Bishop Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, has explicitly voiced his opposition to the military action. “War does not solve anything,” he told the Fides missionary news agency March 21, adding that it “is reawakening sad memories about the Libyans’ recent history.”

“I keep repeating that we need to cease shooting immediately and begin mediation straight away to resolve the crisis peacefully,” he said, adding: “Why have diplomatic means not been considered?”

In another interview with the Italian news agency ANSA, Bishop Martinelli said he doubted that the military intervention would stop Gadhafi’s forces. The bishop, who is reported to know the colonel well, said he hoped Gadhafi would surrender, but that he didn’t think he would do so. “On the contrary,” he said, “I think the use of force will accentuate a reaction. In my opinion, the go-ahead has been given to the wrong strategy.”

The Italian bishops, however, have been more supportive of the action. Their newspaper, Avvenire, said in an editorial that the air strikes are a “real act of war, but a response to a war that a bloody regime has unleashed on its own people.” Noting that the war was taking place “on Italy’s doorstep,” it said that it was being waged for “noble humanitarian” reasons but “is not without risks and shadows.”

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, said: “We hope that everything takes place quickly, fairly and equitably, and with respect to saving many poor people who right now are facing serious difficulties and misfortunes.” The cardinal said “the Gospel shows us the duty to intervene to save those in need. If someone attacks my mother who is in a wheelchair, I have a duty to intervene.” Without peace and justice in the world, he added, “life is wretched.”

The Church’s official teaching, as quoted in the Compendium on the Social Doctrine of the Church (506), is that the international community has a “moral obligation” to intervene on behalf of those groups “whose very survival is threatened or whose basic human rights are seriously violated.”

But it stresses that military action must always be a last resort. “States cannot remain indifferent,” the Compendium continues. “On the contrary, if all other means should prove ineffective, it is legitimate and even obligatory to take concrete measures to disarm the aggressor.”

It also says any measures must be carried out “in full respect of international law.” The current military operation in Libya won the backing of a U.N. resolution last Thursday.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.