ROME — Pope Francis is moving beyond prayer in stepped-up efforts to find peace for Syrians caught in the crossfire in a lingering civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in five years of relentless fighting.
The pontiff, who will turn 80 this weekend, penned a letter to Bashar al-Assad that was hand-delivered to the Syrian leader in Damascus on Monday by Mario Zenari, the Vatican’s newly minted cardinal and apostolic nuncio (or ambassador) to Syria, calling for “an end to the violence and the peaceful resolution of hostilities.”
According to the Holy See press office, which issued a statement but not the full text of the letter, the Vatican has been increasing diplomatic pressure on Assad with an eye to becoming an integral negotiator in eventual peace talks.
“In naming Archbishop Mario Zenari to the College of Cardinals, the Holy Father sought to show a particular sign of affection for the beloved Syrian people, so sorely tried in recent years,” the statement says. “In a letter sent through the new cardinal, Pope Francis expressed again his appeal to President Bashar al-Assad and to the international community for an end to the violence, and the peaceful resolution of hostilities, condemning all forms of extremism and terrorism from whatever quarter they may come, and appealing to the president to ensure that international humanitarian law is fully respected with regard to the protection of the civilians and access to humanitarian aid.”
Vatican City is one of the few Western nations that has maintained active diplomatic ties with Assad, though the Holy See’s embassy in Damascus has been damaged in recent shelling. Zenari’s promotion to cardinal was meant as a signal. Upon receiving his red cap in November, Zenari said elevation sends a strong message to Assad. “It is almost a warning,” he said.
In an interview with La Stampa’s Vatican Insider in October before he was made a cardinal, Zenari described life in Damascus, where he has lived since 2009. “Unlike Aleppo, it is still possible to live here, despite the mortar fire and bullets,” he said. “Everything’s contaminated: the air, the water, the soil. And those who escaped the bombs or chemical attacks live under a different kind of bomb, the bomb of poverty, which affects 80 percent of the population. Half of the factories and hospitals are destroyed.”
He went on to say that the only solution in Syria “lies in the hands of the United Sates and Russia.”
“Three years ago, it seemed a miracle was near but events in Crimea and Ukraine brought the Cold War back to life. At the start of last September, an agreement had been reached, the Russians were committed to getting Syria’s armed forces to stay on the ground, while the U.S. was working on getting moderate rebels to stay put. Then, on the 19th a humanitarian convoy was attacked. Obviously someone wanted the agreement to fall through.”
Francis has been a strong advocate of a diplomatic solution in Syria, condemning the “incredible quantities of money” being exchanged in the region for weapons. “And some of the countries supplying these arms are also among those that talk of peace,” he said last summer. “How can you believe in someone who caresses you with the right hand, and strikes you with the left hand?”
On Sunday, Francis concluded his Angelus with prayers for those left in Aleppo. “Every day I am close, especially in prayer, to the people of Aleppo,” he said. “We must not forget that Aleppo is a city in which there are people: Families, children, the elderly, sick people... Unfortunately, we have become accustomed to war, to destruction; but we must not forget Syria is a country full of history, culture, and faith. We cannot accept that this is negated by war, which is a pile of abuses and falsehoods. I make an appeal for the commitment of everyone, because we face a choice of civilization: No to destruction, Yes to peace, Yes to the people of Aleppo and Syria.”