Last Tuesday, Oct. 30, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, announced that Pope Benedict XIV is sending a delegation of high-ranking churchmen on a mission of solidarity to Syria. The seven-man delegation is exceptional not only for its size but for the experience of its members.
The group includes some veteran peacemakers and experienced diplomats. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, is a former Vatican foreign minister. His current responsibilities include dialogue with Islam. Cardinal Laurent Passinya Monswengo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo was national conciliator in the former Zaire as it struggled to free itself from the dictatorship of Mobutu Zeze Zeku. Bishop Fabio Suescun Mutis of Columbia, where the bishops’ conference has been heavily involved in negotiations to end the country’s half-century long civil war. In addition, Bishop Joseph Nguyen Nang of Vietnam comes from a country where the church is heavily regulated and bishops must exercise a high degree of diplomacy to assure the church’s freedom of action.
They are joined by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, a former president of Catholic Relief Services, a founding organization of the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, which is engaged in assisting the local church in peacebuilding in Columbia and many other countries. The delegation will be accompanied by the Vatican Secretary for Relations with States (foreign minister), Archbishop Dominique Mamberti as well as a staffer from Vatican foreign relations office.
The mission is clearly exceptional. Seldom, if ever, has such a large number of bishops been sent on a peace mission. The size alone of the delegation indicates the importance Pope Benedict XVI assigns to the mission. But the fact that its members have been dispatched from the ongoing Synod of Bishops also is an extraordinary expression of support of the universal church for the Syrian people and an end to the conflict in that country.
Cardinal Bertone was right to designate the mission a gesture of “fraternal solidarity” with the Syrian people and “of spiritual closeness to our Christian brothers and sisters.” While the Holy Father’s bold move could yield unexpected progress toward resolution of the Syrian conflict, the realistic expectations for the outcome of the visit must focus on demonstrating the strongest expression of solidarity possible.
The announcement of the mission included no plans for political meetings, but it can be assumed some political conversations will take place and Damascus is part of the group’s itinerary.
Practically, the Holy See can be expected to try to advance the humanitarian situation. Provision for refugees and other victims of the war as well as the observance of the humanitarian laws of war have been high on the Vatican’s agenda. Pope Benedict gave them priority during his visit to Lebanon last month to conclude the Synod on the Middle East, and in 2006 his proposals during the Israeli intervention against Hezbollah in Lebanon were among the most clear-headed offered by any world leader. They included, as they should in Syria, humanitarian corridors for exit from zones of conflict, areas of protection and material aid for civilian victims.of the conflict. Any or all of these measures would reduce the destructive impact of the civil war.