The Argentine pontiff’s first major foray onto the global stage comes as the U.S. Congress prepares to vote on a military strike against Syria in response to a reported chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21.
For Francis, just six months on the job, the Syria question will test his ability to summon the power of his global bully pulpit and could play a major role in shaping the global image of a man who’s drawn more attention for his down-to-earth pastoral appeal.
Western nations blame the chemical attack on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect with links to Shiite Islam who is trying to suppress a two-year-long Sunni-led rebellion that has claimed more than 100,000 lives.
Francis took the unusual step of penning a letter to world leaders ahead of a global day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria that Catholics will observe on Saturday, Sept. 7.
Francis will preside a marathon five-hour vigil in St. Peter’s Square, and the Vatican has invited believers of all faiths and even nonbelievers to join in in whichever way they see fit.
To reinforce the pope’s peace effort, on Thursday the Vatican also briefed ambassadors from some 70 countries on its position on the Syrian conflict.
The Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, explained that the church’s major concern is “stopping violence” and that any future peace plan must ensure that the rights of minorities, including Christians, are protected.
In his letter to world leaders gathered in St. Petersburg, Francis wrote that so far “one-sided interests have prevailed and in fact hindered the search for a solution” to the Syrian conflict.
“To the [G-20] leaders present, to each and every one, I make a heartfelt appeal for them to help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution,” he wrote.
The pope’s forceful stance on Syria marks the Holy See’s return as an actor on the international stage. Despite being the world’s smallest state, the Vatican has one of the oldest and largest diplomatic networks in the world. It enjoys the status of permanent observer at the United Nations.
Most importantly, the pope’s status as the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics makes him an internationally respected figure, a moral voice capable of speaking to governments and peoples alike.
Under Pope John Paul II, the Vatican mounted a full-throttled attempt to try to avert the Iraq War in 2003, dispatching envoys to Washington and Baghdad in a last-ditch attempt to avoid the conflict.
Like most of the Vatican’s appeals for peace in the 20th century – starting with Benedict XV’s call to end the “pointless slaughter” of World War I – John Paul’s effort ultimately was unsuccessful.
But according to Pierre Morel, a former French ambassador to the Vatican who now heads the Pharos Observatory on religious pluralism in Paris, this doesn’t make Vatican diplomacy altogether impotent or irrelevant.
“It tries to do something that nobody can simply dismiss,” he said. “It expresses the deep frustrations of the world’s peoples and its appeals come from the suffering of communities on both sides.”
In recent years, especially under Pope Benedict XVI, observers noted that the Vatican’s relevance on the international stage was waning. The German pontiff preferred to focus on the church’s internal matters and appointed Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a gaffe-prone canon law expert, to head the Vatican’s diplomatic corps as secretary of state.
Francis, on the other hand, seems intent on reversing that record with his recent appointment of Archbishop Pietro Parolin, a well-respected veteran diplomat, as Bertone’s successor.
“His forceful stance on Syria marks the end of an impasse,” says Marco Impagliazzo, president of the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic organization active in conflict resolution and peace-brokering.
“Francis is not resigned to a passive vision of world affairs. We must prepare for a new age of political audacity for the Holy See.”
Alessandro Speciale has been covering the Vatican since 2007 and started writing for Religion News Service in 2011. Via RNS.