As the pope appealed for a halt to the violence in Libya, U.S. bishops issued a tentative endorsement of the Obama administration's use of force in the North African state in order to "to protect civilians in Libya from their own government," calling on the administration to stay focused on this limited goal and mission.
The coalition campaign against forces still loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, initially begun to interrupt the fall of the "rebel capital" Benghazi when such an event seemed to promise a massacre of civilians, has taken on the appearance of an air support campaign on behalf of a revived rebellion. U.S., French and British sorties are going well beyond enforcing a no-fly zone over opposition territory and directly targeting pro-Qaddafi units that seem inclined to advance against the somewhat haphazard rebel forces. As a result, Qaddafi's impromptu opposition has now reclaimed nearly all the territory recently lost to the more professional and previously better equipped loyalist battalions. Denied air support since the no-fly zone was initiated, Qaddafi loyalist fighters have now been stripped of tanks and artillery by coalition attacks; their material superiority essentially neutralized.
The change in the "tone" of the campaign was noted by Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who said today that such support is not sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council resolution which authorized the the Western coalition's intervention in Libya. "We believe that coalition's interference into the internal, civil war has not been sanctioned by the UN resolution," Lavrov said. "Protection of the civilian population remains our priority."
U.N.S.C. resolution 1973, passed on March 17, imposed a no-fly zone over Libya to protect the civilians from aerial bombings and authorized any military action needed to implement such a ban, short of an occupation. Despite having veto power, Russia abstained from voting along with China, Brazil, India and Germany, while rest of the 15-member Council voted in favor of the measure.
Seeming to confirm the Russian's suspicion that the coalition now has its sights on the near-term removal of Qaddafi, in a joint statement released today, the leaders of France and Britain called on Qaddafi's remaining supporters to drop him before it was "too late."
"Qaddafi must go immediately," Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron said, urging his opponents to join together in a political process that would force his departure and appealing to the rebel National Transitional Council to work on a transition toward democracy. On Tuesday, foreign ministers from 35 nations are scheduled to meet in London to discuss the progress of military action in Libya and plans for a post-Qaddaffi landscape future for the country.
Pope Benedict XVI appealed March 27 for a suspension of fighting in Libya and the immediate start of a serious dialogue aimed at restoring peace to the North African country. The pope said, "My fear for the safety and well-being of the civilian population is growing, as is my apprehension over how the situation is developing with the use of arms."
"To international agencies and to those with political and military responsibility, I make a heartfelt appeal for the immediate start of a dialogue that will suspend the use of arms," he said.
The pope's apparent call for an immediate cease fire was quickly endorsed by the region's Catholic bishops. In a statement signed by Archbishop Vincent Landel of Rabat (Morocco), President of CERNA (the Episcopal Conférence des régions de l'Afrique du Nord), the Bishops of Northern Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya), "faced with the processes of historical development concerning Arab countries and especially the Maghreb, wish to reaffirm our urgent appeal to find an end to this painful conflict, just and dignified for all."
The bishops acknowledge that the conflict is the result of a “legitimate claim for freedom, justice and dignity, particularly by the younger generations" in the region. "This demand translates into a desire to be recognised as responsible citizens with the opportunity to find a job that allows them to live decently, excluding all forms of corruption and cronyism.”
“Today,” the bishops wrote, “this wind of change passes through Libya. And we especially unite with our brother Bishops in Tripoli and Benghazi, and with all communities in the Country.”
But the bishops reaffirmed their opposition to violence and war: “We know that war solves nothing, and when it breaks out, it is just as uncontrollable as the explosion of a nuclear reactor. The first victims are always the poorest and most disadvantaged. Moreover, whether we like it or not, the war in the Near East, and now in the Maghreb, will always be interpreted as 'a crusade.'"
In what could be described as damning with faint support, U.S. bishops said the purpose articulated in U.N.S.C. 1973 to demand “a ceasefire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians” appears to meet the traditional criterion of “just cause,” but said that they joined Pope Benedict XVI in following the military action in Libya with “great apprehension.”
The bishops said important questions about the coalition's use of force remain: "How is the use of force protecting the civilian population of Libya? Is the force employed proportionate to the goal of protecting civilians? ... Is it producing evils graver than the evil it hopes to address?” and “What are the implications of the use of force for the future welfare of the Libyan people and the stability of the region?”
“We know these are difficult questions to which there are few easy answers, but it is our moral responsibility as a nation to rigorously examine the use of military force in light of the need to protect human life and dignity,” wrote Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, New York, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in a March 24 letter to National Security Advisor Thomas E. Donilon.
Bishop Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, Apostolic Vicar of Tripoli and president of Caritas Libya, enthusiastically welcomed Pope Benedict's call for a cessation of violence. “The Holy Father's appeal was wonderful news and gives us great comfort," he said. “We have translated today's appeal by the Holy Father into Arabic and we will send it as a voice message to the Libyan Foreign Ministry, for their information,” says Bishop Martinelli. Archbishop Martinelli reported that Libyan police have been stationed in front of his church, (St. Francis in Dahra, Tripoli) "officially charged with protecting us." He added that conditions in Tripoli were growing more difficult with long lines for petrol and "there is even difficulty to buy food.”
Of the coalition's bombing atacks, Bishop Martinelli said, "Tonight we did not hear the bombing. We know that they struck near Sirte. In recent days there have been civilian casualties. I know of at least one person died of a splinter in the skull, perhaps produced by a blow to the anti-aircraft exploded at a very low altitude."
Read more of America's coverage of Libyan crisis here.