Two events have put the spotlight on the Vatican’s foreign policy toward the Syrian crisis. First were the remarks made by the papal ambassador to Syria, Archbishop Mario Zenari. He accused the international community of washing its hands of what is happening in Syria, similar to what the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate did. According to the Christian tradition, Pilate sentenced Jesus to crucifixion and then washed his hands to proclaim that he was not responsible, despite knowing that Jesus was innocent. Following the accusation, a Syrian armed group threatened to kill Zenari. The second event is the sudden resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, who is known to be very interested in Eastern Christianity.
According to those in Vatican circles close to the Lebanese church, the Vatican sees what is happening in Syria in a clear way and away from narrow interests. One source said, “In the Vatican, religion is separate from the state because what is important is the public good. The Vatican does not directly intervene in Syria and the Arab region. The Pope is not a political leader, even though he is the leader of the Vatican. The Vatican believes that violence, murder and intimidation are not a passing phenomenon but are an offense against human dignity.”
The source added, “Thanks to this policy, whose beacon is the public good, the late Pope John Paul II has broken down the barriers between all the sects and has opened communication lines with countries that are different religiously and ideologically, especially Israel and Iran. The Vatican now has 165 papal embassies in the world, even though the Vatican is the smallest country in the world.”
The source said, “The words of Zenari were intended to stop the violence in Syria and to go back to dialogue, not to support President Bashar al-Assad or anyone else.”
The Vatican’s policy toward Lebanon and the Middle East will not change with the end of Pope Benedict XVI’s era. According to Vatican circles, the concerns of eastern Christians will remain at the core of the Vatican’s strategic interests. They point out what they called “the papal historic love for Lebanon and the region in general.” They said that Lebanon is the only Arab country with a Christian president and that the successive papal visits to Lebanon are only an “expression of the papal love for Lebanon and, through it, the entire East.”
The Vatican source pointed out a detail whose meaning has been missed by many: Pope Benedict XVI is one of the few popes to have spoken a complete sentence — an apostolic blessing — in Arabic.
In politics, the Vatican has a new approach for eastern Christians. Its approach may be characterized as a reversal in light of what happened in the Iraq war and the exodus of about 1.2 million Christians, which made the Syrian crisis a daily concern for the church. The Vatican thinks that the initiative cannot be left in the hands of the Americans or Europeans, especially after the Iraqi experience, “which proved that Saddam Hussein was a bigger guarantee for the Christians than the Americans or Europeans. The Iraqi Christians were ringing their church bells and taking great caution before going to pray at church, not knowing if a bomb awaits them.”
The Vatican’s foreign affairs staff are very concerned about the Christian flight from Syria. They see very clearly the policies followed by the United States, Canada, Australia and European countries. They are refraining from granting immigration visas before they agree on the quotas between them, which has transformed displaced Syrians into a commodity.
The Vatican’s “reversal” has two faces:
Its first face is to not blindly follow the West’s policies. “And the matter is clear in Syria, where the Vatican’s contacts with the U.S. administration convinced the latter to refrain from intervening directly or give heavy weapons to the Syrian opposition,” said sources in secular circles with solid links to the Vatican. The sources add that “the Vatican will continue to work with the US administration to prevent Syria’s breakup because the Vatican’s foreign policy aims to maintain its strategic interests, most notably the Christian presence in the Levant. Regarding the pressure method used by the Vatican, it is not of the military type. It is the 72 million Catholic Americans who influence the US elections.”
The second face of the Vatican’s “reversal” is its opening up toward the Eastern Orthodox Church, especially the Russian one; some recall the history of Tsarist Russia, which protected the Christians in Lebanon in the 17th and 18th centuries.
According to the source, the Vatican has called on the Christians to stand fast in the Syrian crisis amid the fear that Syria might break up and that the war might spread, and with the emergence of mercenaries that have attacked religious places and intimidated Christians to leave, especially in Aleppo. “No wonder that the religious celebrations have been consolidated between the two churches over the long term," the source said. "The visit by Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rai to Syria to participate in the inauguration of Patriarch John Yazigi was a direct order from the Vatican."
This Vatican containment policy disrupted the project to create sectarian statelets in the region, which would benefit Israel. Although the bloodshed in Syria continues, the Vatican is urging everyone to reach a settlement “because the Syrian crisis can only be solved by dialogue,” according to those with solid links to Vatican circles.
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