Pope Francis urged the Group of 20 leaders on Thursday to abandon the "futile pursuit" of a military solution in Syria as the Vatican laid out its case for a negotiated settlement that guarantees rights for all Syrians, including minority Christians.
In a letter to the G-20 host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Francis lamented that "one-sided interests" had prevailed in Syria, preventing a diplomatic end to the conflict and allowing the continued "senseless massacre" of innocents.
"To the leaders present, to each and every one, I make a heartfelt appeal for them to help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution," Francis wrote as the G-20 meeting got under way in St. Petersburg.
Francis has ratcheted up his call for peace in Syria amid threatened U.S.-led military strikes following an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus. But he has also been careful not to lay blame on any one side, exhorting world leaders instead to focus on the plight of Syrian civilians and the need to end the violence.
Francis will host a peace vigil in St. Peter's Square on Saturday, a test of whether his immense popular appeal will translate into popular support for his peace message. It's the first time any such peace rally has been held at the Vatican, though Holy See officials have stressed it's a religious event, not a political protest.
On Thursday, the Vatican summoned ambassadors accredited to the Holy See to outline its position on Syria, with Foreign Minister Archbishop Dominique Mamberti noting that the Aug. 21 attack had generated "horror and concern" around the world.
"Confronted with similar acts one cannot remain silent, and the Holy See hopes that the competent institutions make clear what happened and that those responsible face justice," Mamberti told the 71 ambassadors gathered.
He didn't refer explicitly to the threat of military strikes to punish the Syrian regime for the attack. But he said the main priority must be to stop the violence which he said risked involving other countries and creating "unforeseeable consequences in various parts of the world."
The Vatican, he said, wants a return to dialogue and for the country to not be split up along ethnic or religious lines.
Minorities, including Christians, must have their basic rights guaranteed, including their right to profess their religion, he said. And he called for the opposition to distance itself from extremists, isolate them "and openly and clearly oppose terrorism" — a reference to the al-Qaida-affiliated rebels fighting against the government.
The Assad family's four-decade iron rule over Syria long has rested on support from the country's ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, Shiite Muslims and Kurds. As a result, the Catholic Church has toed a careful line on Syria, staying largely silent at the start of the civil war even after the regime's brutal crackdown on dissent.
As the violence raged, Pope Benedict XVI and later Francis stepped up calls for dialogue. And amid the U.S. threat of military intervention, officials in the region and at the Vatican have warned that any outside military intervention will only exacerbate tensions, with Christians in the region bearing the brunt of the fallout.
On Wednesday, the superior general of Francis' Jesuit order, the Rev. Adolfo Nicolas, told a Catholic news agency that military action by the U.S. and France would be an "abuse of power."
"I cannot understand who gave the United States or France the right to act against a country in a way that will certainly increase the suffering of the citizens of that country, who, by the way, have already suffered beyond measure," he was quoted as saying in the interview, the text of which was released by a Vatican-affiliated spokesman.
In the United States, the head of the U.S. bishops' conference, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, wrote a letter to members of Congress urging them not to resort to military strikes. He cited bishops in the region as warning that any outside military intervention would be counterproductive, particularly given the lack of international consensus.