'A Return to Harmony'

Pope Benedict appeals for Dialogue to Stem Libya Crisis

Pope Benedict XVI issued a “heartfelt appeal” to political leaders to begin immediate talks to halt military action in Libya during his Angelus address on March 27.

Addressing pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, the Pope said he was praying for a “return to harmony” in Libya and North Africa, and he called on international organizations and political and military leaders “for the immediate launch of a dialogue that will halt the use of arms.”

The Holy Father said the “increasingly dramatic news” coming out of Libya was making him “progressively more concerned about the well-being and safety of civilians and apprehensive over the developments in the situation, which is currently characterized by the use of arms.”

Since March 18, Libya has been subject to U.N.-backed military action by coalition forces in a bid to protect civilians and rebel forces who are seeking the overthrow the regime of President Moammar Gadhafi.

Speaking just hours after returning from a visit to the Ardeatine Caves in Rome, where 335 Italians were killed by the Nazis on March 24, 1944, the Pope said that at times of greater tension “it is even more essential to make use of all means at the disposal of diplomacy and to support even the faintest sign of openness and of desire for reconciliation between the parties involved, in the search for peaceful and lasting solutions.”

The Holy Father also expressed his concern for the unrest in other parts of the Middle East. “There, too,” he said, “may the path of dialogue and reconciliation be favored, in the search for just and fraternal coexistence.”

 With these words, Benedict XVI and the Vatican appeared to be taking a significantly more decisive position on Libya than previously. On March 20, the Pope focused on protection of innocent civilians and made an urgent appeal to political and military leaders to provide humanitarian corridors. But he did not explicitly condemn the coalition air raids on Libyan territory.

Until now, Vatican officials have been uneasy at the lack of dialogue that took place before Operation Odyssey Dawn was under way and made no secret of their distaste for the speed at which French fighters began bombing raids so soon after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution authorizing use of force to protect civilians.

The Vatican has also been 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,” according to reports. 

The more recent call for dialogue and an end to military force may have been influenced by the concerns of Church leaders in North Africa. In a March 28 statement, bishops of the region issued “an urgent appeal to find an end to this painful conflict, just and dignified for all.” They warned of the uncontrollable nature of war and that the first victims “are always the poorest and most disadvantaged.”

 They also appeared to be concerned about a possible backlash against the Christian minority in the region. “Whether we like it or not, the war in the Near East, and now in the Maghreb, will always be interpreted as ‘a crusade,’” they said. “This will have inevitable consequences on the friendly relations that Christians and Muslims have woven and continue to weave.”

The bishop of Tripoli, Giovanni Martinelli, was even more forthright, saying the allied bombing was “a mistake” which must be condemned “without ifs and buts.” Earlier, he had told the Italian news agency ANSA that he doubted that the military intervention would stop Gadhafi’s forces, but rather “intensify the reaction.” Writing in the daily newspaper Il Giornale, Magdi Cristiano Allam, the famous Italian convert from Islam, predicted the civil war would result in Libya becoming an Islamist state with sharia (Islamic) law.

Italy’s bishops, initially supportive of the military intervention, are also taking a more pacifist line by calling for diplomacy and an end to military action. And although Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote to the White House that the U.N. resolution on protecting civilians “appears to meet” the traditional criterion of “just cause” within the Church’s teaching on just war, he said the bishops “have refrained from making definitive judgments because the situation on the ground remains complex and involves many prudential decisions beyond our expertise.”

Bishop Hubbard said the bishops were following the military action in Libya with “great apprehension.” The key question, he said, was whether the coalition actions stay focused on this limited goal and mission.

Meanwhile, the Vatican sent the apostolic nuncio to Great Britain, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, to represent the Holy See at an international conference on Libya in London March 29.

Reports say several thousand people have been killed and thousands wounded since the uprising against Col. Gadhafi’s rule began in February. As the Register went to press, the rebels were controlling much of the east and pro-Gadhafi forces holding the capital Tripoli and other western cities.

President Barack Obama has refused to rule out arming the rebels who seek to overthrow the Libyan leader, but for the moment, he said the U.S. would supply Gadhafi’s opponents with humanitarian aid, medical supplies and communications equipment.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.