VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI has canceled plans to send a delegation of bishops to Syria, instead choosing to send the cardinal president of his papal charity to Lebanon to meet Syrian Church members, refugees and humanitarian workers, as well as to deliver a large aid donation.
Speaking at the end of his general audience Nov. 7, the Pope said that, due to the "tragic" situation in Syria and a "variety of circumstances and developments," the announced Vatican delegation would no longer be able to carry out its peace mission as planned. That mission was to include Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and chairman of the board of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, plus two other cardinals, three bishops and a priest.
The Holy Father instead asked Cardinal Robert Sarah, president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, to undertake an alternative mission Nov. 7-10.
Joined by the Cor Unum secretary and the secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, the cardinal will "visit a number of refugees from that country and will chair a meeting of Catholic charitable agencies to coordinate efforts, as the Holy See has urgently requested, to provide assistance to the Syrian people, inside and outside the country," the Pope said.
Benedict XVI also made a significant contribution to a $1-million donation in humanitarian and ecclesial aid to Syria, made by participants at the recent Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization.
"I continue to follow with great concern the tragic situation of violent conflict in Syria, where the fighting has not ceased, and each day the toll of victims rises, accompanied by the untold suffering of many civilians, especially those who have been forced to abandon their homes," the Pope said.
He explained that he had planned to send a delegation of synod fathers to Damascus as a sign of "my own solidarity" and the Church’s "spiritual closeness" to the Christian communities in Syria.
The Pope said "no effort" should be spared in the search for peace and a just coexistence. "We must do everything that is possible, because one day it may be too late," he said.
In a note, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said that, with this mission, the cardinal and his small delegation will have the task of showing the "heartfelt participation" of the Holy See and of the whole Church in the peace process and strengthening humanitarian efforts of the Catholic Church in the region.
"The Holy See is confident that this initiative, both humanitarian and ecclesial in nature, will help to ease the plight of those suffering from the current crisis and to push the parties involved, as well as those who have the good of Syria at heart, towards the search for a just and peaceful settlement of the conflict," Father Lombardi said.
An informed Vatican official told the Register Nov. 3 that the Holy See had been "working hard" on a new initiative, one that avoided the "possibility of manipulation" by Syria’s warring factions. He said recent violence, particularly a bomb attack in Beirut in October, "had many effects, so everything has had to be taken into consideration."
The official also said the Holy See is considering other "practical measures" aimed at bringing peace to the region, and these will be disclosed soon.
Dialogue With Iraq
The Vatican initiative comes after reports of efforts by the papal nuncio to Iraq to improve the situation for the country’s Christians. Last month, Archbishop Giorgio Lingua met with senior Iraqi Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as part of broad practical efforts by the Pope to bring peace to the Middle East.
The meeting in the Iraqi city of al-Hira reportedly was held to express the Church’s gratitude to Sistani for his positions in Iraq. The nuncio also wanted to deliver the Pope’s apostolic exhortation on the Synod for the Middle East, signed and released by the Holy Father during his visit to Lebanon in September.
During a press conference Oct. 18, Archbishop Lingua said Pope Benedict "is very concerned about the situation facing Christians in Iraq and has urged them to stay in the country and live their lives normally." He said that, in a message he delivered from the Pope to al-Sistani, the Pope thanked the Muslim cleric for his positions regarding the situation in Iraq, "particularly relating to the forced displacement suffered by Christians."
Ra’ad Jalil Kejeji, a representative of Iraq’s Christian Endowment Fund who accompanied the nuncio, said al-Sistani "has always stood by Christians, and his recommendations to all Iraqis is to stand united."
The delegation also joined with the ayatollah in denouncing "The Innocence of Muslims," an anti-Islamic video posted on YouTube that was in the spotlight in the Islamic world in September.
Archbishop Lingua, who stressed that the Iraqi Constitution "guarantees every citizen the right to live anywhere within the country, regardless of religion," told reporters that his visit was "positive" and "aimed at creating a spirit of love between all religions."
The Vatican official said the nuncio’s meeting was "not directly linked" with Syria, but "of course was part of the overall picture." He said the meeting with al-Sistani was part of an effort "to get an impression of what to do and how to help and support the Christians there, to try to present their case and to ask for support."
During his visit, Archbishop Lingua also joined several monks to celebrate the first Mass in 1,500 years in one of the oldest monasteries in al-Hira, which was a spiritual capital for Christians for 500 years before the introduction of Islam to the country.
Between Najaf and Kufa are 33 monasteries, some of which were only discovered recently. However, the majority of the monasteries in this region have yet to be rediscovered, according to Al-Hayat, a pan-Arab newspaper.
Elsewhere in the region, the Holy Father is also being kept briefed by Holy See officials about the situation in Egypt. The country’s Islamist government, led by President Mohamed Morsi, is drawing up a new constitution that may result in the country becoming an exclusively Islamic state.
Sectarian disputes have been on the rise in the country since Morsi’s government won elections earlier this year, and discrimination against the country’s Coptic Christians continues.
The Vatican official told the Register that the Holy See is "constantly" raising the issue of discrimination and persecution with the Egyptian government.
However, he played down any imminent threat of the creation of an Islamist state, saying there is "no immediate major concern," adding that the Holy See is monitoring the situation to see "how things develop in the coming days."