National Catholic Register


Benedict Prays — and Works — for Mideast Peace


Register Correspondent

August 6-12, 2006 Issue | Posted 8/7/06 at 9:00 AM


VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI, Holy See officials and other Church leaders are pulling out all the stops to avert an escalation and put an immediate end to the conflict in the Middle East.

At the same time, however, they are staying impartial and keeping politics at arm’s length — a response that is winning admiration within the international community.

On July 23, the Pope held a day of prayer and penance for peace in the warring region. Since the conflict began July 12, he has also spoken frequently of his wish for an immediate cease-fire between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah.

The Holy Father has said that for peace to be achieved, certain rights need to be respected. Specifically, he referred to “the right of the Lebanese to the integrity and sovereignty of their country, the right of the Israelis to live in peace in their state, and the right of the Palestinians to have a free and sovereign homeland.”

Benedict has also announced a special drive to raise funds for civilians affected by the conflict, coordinated through the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Pope’s charitable arm.

Meanwhile, other Church leaders have been similarly active — mostly behind the scenes. Speaking on the Italian television news channel Rai July 24, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state, said there has been “intense effort contacting the chanceries of many of the countries” involved in or concerned about resolving the Mideast violence. Apostolic nunciatures are reported to be working closely with these governments.

In Rome, three Holy See officials, led by Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican’s foreign minister, were invited as observers to a July 26 summit of foreign ministers. The summit, which included representatives from the United States, the United Nations, European Union countries, several Arab states, Canada, Russia, Cyprus and Turkey, was unable to agree on a cease-fire plan.

Benedict, after praying July 25 at the Marian shrine of Notre-Dame de la Guerison, located at the foot of Mont Blanc, said that he was hopeful that “a lasting solution” might be found.

“I feel that something is now moving, I see that prayers are not in vain,” he said.

Mediation Efforts

In the Holy Land itself, the Register has learned that Church leaders have been continuously working with senior Israeli officials and, indirectly, with Hezbollah, to bring an end to the conflict.

“I’m meeting regularly with [Israeli] officials, offering my services for whatever is needed, and with Hezbollah through others who are in direct contact with them,” said Archbishop Paul Nabil Sayah, the Maronite archbishop of Haifa.

Archbishop Sayah has also been in frequent contact with Archbishop Antonio Franco, the papal nuncio to Israel and the Palestinian territories who, he says, “is extremely active” in his peacemaking efforts.

Fighting between Israel and Hezbollah erupted in mid-July when the Lebanese-based militant group kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. Tensions had already been high in the region after the Palestinian militant group Hamas kidnapped an Israeli soldier a few weeks earlier.

In a last-minute bid to avert conflict, the Register has learned, Israeli President Moshe Katsav and Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Oded Ben-Hur, requested the mediation of Church leaders in the region. Archbishop Franco was then instructed by Secretariat of State officials to try and win the soldiers’ freedom.

“I tried to get in contact, through priests, with the people holding the soldiers to secure their release — it was the only thing I could do,” said Archbishop Franco, who was unwilling to comment on his ongoing negotiations.

Archbishop Sayah, who is Lebanese but ministers to Maronite Catholics in Jordan, Palestine and the Israeli cities of Haifa and Jerusalem, said he is spending much of the time trying to persuade his flock not to flee their homes.

“I’m receiving calls from all over from people wanting to quit,” he said July 26. “But I’m encouraging them to stay because displacing people may relieve them for a little while but as soon as they find themselves outside their homes, other problems develop.”

The archbishop called on Catholics around the world to pray and work for the humanitarian rights of those affected.

Spiritual Approach

The Pope’s overall approach to the conflict has been significant for its emphasis on bringing a spiritual dimension to events rather than entering into the politics of the situation.

The Vatican, the Holy Father said July 21, tends to leave diplomatic bargaining to other nations “because we do not get involved in politics even if we do everything for peace.”

Benedict’s comments were echoed by Cardinal Sodano in his interview with Rai 24. “The Holy See tries to be super partes (above all parties); it has a universal mission to unite all of humanity,” Cardinal Sodano said.

At the same time, the Holy See appears to have pulled out all the stops to work for peace. As well as the Vatican’s prompt response to the mediation request of Israel’s President Katsav, after Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora made a long telephone call to Cardinal Sodano July 19, the Vatican responded by calling for the establishment of a humanitarian corridor — a request that the Israelis subsequently accommodated.

But the Pope clearly regards prayer and petitions for peace as the Church’s greatest contribution to resolving the crisis. The Holy Father highlighted that prayer-centered approach in his remarks at a July 23 vigil for peace between Israel and Lebanon over which he presided in the church of Rhemes-Saint-Georges, near his summer holiday residence in Les Combes, Italy.

“Lord, free us from all evils and grant us peace,” Benedict prayed at the peace vigil. “Not tomorrow or the day after, grant us peace today!”

(Zenit contributed

to this story.)

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.