Pope Calls for Urgent Diplomacy in Libya Conflict

Monday, 28 Mar 2011 12:34 PM

By Edward Pentin

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Pope Benedict XVI has taken a more defined line on the military operation in Libya, calling for urgent diplomacy to suspend hostilities.

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

He made the appeal 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 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 characterised by the use of arms.”

He added 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 Pope 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".

Benedict XVI and the Vatican appear to be taking a significantly more decisive and doveish position on Libya than previously. On March 20, the Pope neither referred to diplomatic efforts, nor did he explicitly condemn the coalition air raids on Libyan territory. Instead, he focused on protection of innocent civilians and made an urgent appeal to political and military leaders to provide humanitarian corridors.

A number of Vatican officials have been uneasy at the lack of dialogue that took place before Operation Odyssey Dawn was underway. They also 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 resolution 1973 authorizing use of force to protect civilians. However, the Holy See refrained from explicitly expressing support for either side.

The Vatican's clearer position of late may have been influenced by the concerns of Church leaders in North Africa. Bishops of the region have issued “an urgent appeal to find an end to this painful conflict, just and dignified for all.” In a March 28 statement, 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, has been even more forthright, saying the allied bombing is “a mistake” which must be condemned “without ifs and buts."

However, a number of cardinals and bishops, particularly in Italy, have taken a more interventionist approach to the U.N.-authorized operation. And U.S. bishops also believe the conflict appears to be just, although with some reservations.

In a March 25 letter to National Security Adviser, the bishops said the U.N. resolution on protecting civilians “appears to meet” the traditional criterion of “just cause” within the Church's teaching on just war. But they stressed they are refraining from “making definitive judgments” in light of “many prudential decisions beyond our expertise”. And they joined Benedict XVI in following the military action in Libya with “great apprehension.”

The key question, they said, is whether the coalition actions stay focused on this limited goal and mission.

Meanwhile, the Vatican announced today that it will be attending an international conference tomorrow on Libya as an observer. Representing the Holy See at the London meeting will be the Pope's representative to Great Britain, Archbishop Antonio Mennini.

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