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September 18 2013

Pope Francis and Syria

Fasting against resignation

Newspaper article at Corriere della Sera

printable version

Pope Francis’ initiative on Syria stands out in comparison with the rituals of diplomacy. It is a resumption of the presence of the Holy See on the international scene. The initiative moves on two levels: religious and popular on the one hand and diplomatic on the other hand. This is the characteristic of the great peace interventions of the Vatican, as John XXIII did with the Cuban Crisis of 1962 or Pope Wojtyla for the Balcan crises and Iraq.  Pope Francis appeals to the Catholic "people" to prayer and fasting. Not only Catholics, but all.


We saw it yesterday in St. Peter's Square and in many churches in the world . It is not a minor fact in the void of general sensitivity to the Syrian drama. Unlike previous crises, the Europeans seem resigned to irrelevance.

Not only governments but also civil societies. In 2003 there were overcrowded demonstrations against the war in Iraq. Today Europeans are silent, a little bit taken by their crisis, a little bit convinced that they can do nothing. The interest in the big international issues is blurred. Even the left, usually active on peace, had no capacity for mobilization.

European introversion involves all the environments crosswise. It is what Francis does not accept: powerlessness and resignation in front of so much bloodshed, more than a hundred thousand dead, two million refugees and the Lebanon in crisis. Above all, the absence of peace prospects carries a heavy weight. As a man of faith, Pope Bergoglio believes that prayer "moves mountains": as the Gospel says, some demons are cast out only by prayer and fasting. For the Church, war is a terrible demon. Along the twentieth century the Popes never resigned themselves to the logic of conflict, taking from time to time the insults of the various parts, drunk with warmongering. With the yesterday’s initiative, Francis appels to Catholics (and others) to awaken from slumber: he rejects the solution, impossible however, of the weapons, but he also rejects the indifference. We can not be just spectators.

Someone has said that the Vatican’s protagonism has an anti-American colouring, because it arose in contrast to punitive intervention of the United States in Syria. After Benedict XVI who received Bush in the Vatican gardens ignoring the protocol, it would be the time for a Latin American Pope cold with the USA giant: it seems to me a wrong reading. The Pope’s intervention on Syria is Pope Francis’ (who does not have a story as a diplomat) international debut, after a few months’ transition of the papacy. In fact,  it coincides with the appointment of the Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, known as a great priest and a fine negotiator, linked to the tradition of Cardinals Casaroli and Silvestrini .

Francis went down to the international stage with “prophetic” tones, driven by a tragedy of great proportions: "There is a judgment by God and also a judgment by history on our actions from which one can not escape! It is never the use of violence that leads to peace. War calls for war, violence calls for violence!".

The Holy See has suggested, in parallel with the public intervention, also the path of diplomacy. Several governments, at a time of restrictions, question the usefulness of the  embassies in the Vatican. These days, they realised that Rome may be a crossroads. The Vatican diplomats have explained their vision to all ambassadors, inviting the smaller countries not to be absent, because they also play their role. However, the Pope has intended to nail the big countries to their responsibilities. The letter to Putin (G20 president, but also a great protector of Damascus) is a diplomatic text, even if in the end one notices an irregular request to the President "to pray for me". Putin is an Orthodox Christian and the links between the new Russia and the Moscow Patriarchate are tight. The Russian Orthodox are traditional friends of the Syrian Orthodox Christians.

Bergoglio asks the G2O "not to remain inert in the face of tragedies". He indicates the negotiations to break the deadlock of Cold War: on the one hand, the United States, and on the other, Russia and others.

Enrico Letta has rightly valorised the message of the Pope in Moscow, not as a treat, but because it suggests a path of exit that saves the honour of all: the Russians who do not want to lose Syria and the United States. A Cold War posture (no more two leader countries) is an anachronism: a surreal way of living in the multipolar world. In fact, the present deadlock is typical of an international community, rich in rituals, blocked in the inability to manage conflict, but also at risk of bigger conflagrations.

Francis is not lenient with the slowness of the nations, "without further delay" is his key invitation. Time is not an irrelevant component. To let it pass means to let the conflict turn gangrenous. But also to shed blood. “To save” the blood is crucial for those who feel the value of every human life. There is the need for a truce to save the lives and involve the parts (internal and external to Syria) on the path of negotiation.


Andrea Riccardi

8th September 2013


Corriere della Sera


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