Pope Benedict XVI has started mediating to solve the crisis in Syria, with the support of the religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — the highest authority of Najaf — and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Qom's highest authority. Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Pope's number two official, said that the delegation would travel to Damascus next week.
George Sabra, a member of the executive committee of the Syrian National Council (SNC), told Azzaman that the council warmly welcomes the visit of the Vatican delegation.
He said [the SNC] welcomed the role of the Pope. Sabra revealed to Azzaman the content of a letter he and Abdul-Basit Sida, head of the SNC, delivered to the Pope during their meeting at the Vatican last month.
Sabra said the papal delegation's visit to Damascus is part of a broader move involving Iran and Iraq. Meanwhile, the Vatican’s ambassador in Baghdad, Giorgio Lingua, met with Sistani during his visit to Najaf.
Raad Jalil, head of the Christian Endowment office, told Azzaman that the topics discussed between the Vatican ambassador and the highest authorities of Najaf did not include political issues. When asked by Azzaman about the planned visit of the Vatican’s ambassador in Baghdad to Tehran to meet with the Iranian leader Ali Khamenei, Jalil said he did not know of the matter.
The Italian Cardinal Bertone said that the bishops cannot remain idle when there is a tragedy that won't end politically.
He stressed that the delegation would encourage all parties who have committed themselves to search for an agreement that respects the rights and duties of all, with particular attention to the provisions of humanitarian law.
However, Sabra told Azzaman: “We are optimistic about the papal envoy's visit to Syria, following the Pope’s visit to Lebanon and his apostolic guidance to the Middle East, in which he said that what is happening in Syria is part of the Arab Spring.”
Sabra stressed that Christians are part of Syrian society and they share in the suffering.
He added: “We hope that the visit of the papal envoy will be a continuation of what was started by the Apostolic Exhortation, and we hope that [the Pope] makes another step toward solidarity with the Syrian people, all the while ensuring a peaceful and democratic transition of power in which Christians will have a role.”
Sabra added: “Sida — head of the SNC — and I have met with the Pope and explained to him the suffering of the Syrians, and we delivered a letter to him regarding this painful situation.”
Asked by Azzaman about the demands delivered to the Pope, Sabra said: “We did not ask for any specific demands.”
He also added that the Vatican cardinals do not lack wisdom in dealing with such things, as they are fully aware of the situation.
The Pope’s Spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi said that the protocol for the visit would be announced soon.
Lombardi added that the mission highlights the commitment of the Church as a whole and will include — in addition to the Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who is responsible for inter-religious dialogue — high-level figures from different countries, including Archbishop of Kinshasa, the Congolese Laurent Monsengwo who played a major role in the peace efforts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombian Fabio Suescún Mutis, Vietnamese Joseph Nguyen Nang and American Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, who has began to climb to prominence within church circles.
A Syrian bishop noted that this announcement had surpassed all expectations of Arab bishops, who constantly expressed during the Synod their fears of Islamic dominance, which raised doubts about the possibility of conducting a real dialogue.
For a long time, the majority of Catholics in Syria were in favor of the secular regime of Bashar al-Assad, who was protecting their rights as a minority.
However, the increasing repression led some of them to join the opposition, but another part is seemingly still supporting the regime for fear that Islamists will come to power.
But the Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai objected, telling AFP: “I tell Westerners who say that Christians are with the Syrian regime that the Christians are with the state, not with the regime. They are worried about the stability of their country, not the stability of the regime.”