On Sunday, Sept. 1, Pope Francis addressed the escalating violence in Syria before crowds packed into St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in Rome, deploring talk of military intervention and calling for a vigil of prayer and fasting on Saturday, Sept. 7.
The pontiff followed up with a letter–sent on Wednesday, Sept. 4 and published on Thursday, Sept. 5–to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the host of the current G20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. Also on Thursday, President Obama shook hands with Putin at the summit, producing a photo tweeted by CNBC’s Eamon Javers. Politico’s Ben White then re-tweeted the shot, calling Obama’s expression “the death stare.”
Putin is a longtime supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and apparently Pope Francis decided the Russian leader was the one to talk to about the issue. While not a Catholic or the leader of a primarily Catholic nation, Putin makes a point of attending all the major religious festivals of the Russian Orthodox Church and has sought the Church’s support to rally voters against opposition protesters.
In the letter (click here for the full text), which also deals with economic topics, Francis writes, “It is regrettable that, from the very beginning of the conflict in Syria, one-sided interests have prevailed and in fact hindered the search for a solution that would have avoided the senseless massacre now unfolding. The leaders of the G20 cannot remain indifferent to the dramatic situation of the beloved Syrian people which has lasted far too long and even risks bringing greater suffering to a region bitterly tested and needful of peace.”
Francis urged the world leaders to “lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution,” asking they instead turn to “dialogue and negotiation.”
He added, “all governments have the moral duty to do everything possible to ensure humanitarian assistance to those suffering because of the conflict, both within and beyond the country’s borders.”
Following the publication of the letter, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi refuted the claim on Thursday from the Argentinian newspaper Clarin that the pope had contacted Assad. Lombardi also denied the Clarin report that Francis had reached out to the White House to urge against U.S. military action in Syria.
Pope Francis’ letter was not the only comment from the Vatican on the Syrian conflict. Also on Thursday, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations With States, summoned foreign ambassadors to the Vatican to the Synod Hall to discuss the situation in Syria and the pope’s call to the Catholic faithful and members of other religions to come together in prayer and fasting on Saturday.
In Vatican terms, the address–click here for the English translation from the original Italian–was a “non-paper” or “non-document,” an unofficial statement which still reflects the Holy See’s position.
Mamberti’s comments decried reports of a chemical attack attributed to al-Assad’s forces, addressed the plight of the Christian minority in Syria, and referred to comments by both Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis about the conflict.
In search of a “just solution,” Mamberti laid out three general principles, saying, “First of all, it is indispensable to do one’s utmost for the revival of dialogue between the parties, and for the reconciliation of the Syrian people. Then, the unity of the country must be preserved, avoiding the establishment of different zones for the various components of the society. Finally, next to the unity of the country, its territorial integrity must also be guaranteed.”
He closed his remarks with, “Finally, a cause of particular concern is the growing presence in Syria of extremist groups, often coming from other countries, hence the importance of exhorting the population and also opposition groups to distance themselves from such extremists, to isolate them and to oppose terrorism openly and clearly.”
Although it is the seat of authority of a Church that reaches across almost the planet, the Vatican has no arms or weapons to affect world events. But Pope Francis and his predecessors know that their words get attention and carry weight with many. That’s one reason for the prayer vigil, which will be carried live, starting at 1 PM Eastern time on Catholic cable and satellite network EWTN.
As Pope Francis said in his Angelus address on Sept. 1, “We will gather in prayer and in a spirit of penance, invoking God’s great gift of peace upon the beloved nation of Syria and upon each situation of conflict and violence around the world. Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace.”
He also invited “our non-Catholic Christian brothers, followers of other religions and all men of good will, to participate, in whatever way they can, in this initiative.”
Lastly, also on Thursday, the Vatican released more details about the vigil, which will feature prayers for peace composed by previous popes and appearances by five couples representing Syria, Egypt, the Holy Land, the United States, and Russia.