As Conflict Continues, Holy See Officials Promote Peace Under Fire

Even in the midst of bombings, Vatican ambassadors stay put, risking their lives while working to end what Pope Francis has termed a “piecemeal” World War III, said the Vatican minister of foreign affairs. “Let’s not be kidding ourselves about what the stakes are here: If we are going to bring peace, if we are going to reconcile nations, if we are going to secure countries and communities, particularly minorities, particularly people who are persecuted, we are going to have to make an unprecedented effort,” Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher said on Feb. 25.

Archbishop Gallagher, whose formal title is secretary for relations with states, oversees Vatican diplomatic efforts to “know what is going on in the world, understand it and interpret it” in order to advise the pope and others in the Roman Curia, the church’s central administration.

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Pope Francis has earned a reputation for taking risks with his own safety—for example, when in November he traveled to the Central African Republic, an active war zone. “From the top, that example is being given,” Archbishop Gallagher said. Knowing the pope willingly puts his life in danger “inspires the rest of us to go the extra mile with him as well,” he said.

A case in point is Archbishop Mario Zenari, the Vatican nuncio in war-torn Syria, Archbishop Gallagher said. Archbishop Zenari, “throughout the whole of this conflict, has remained at his post and has made a very significant contribution” to the peacemaking effort that is underway, he said.

Speaking specifically of the crisis in Syria and Iraq, where so-called Islamic State militants have captured large swaths of territory and driven out tens of thousands of Christians and members of other minority groups, Archbishop Gallagher said he is hopeful for a resolution of the conflict. A cease-fire brokered by the United States and Russia came into effect across Syria on Feb. 26, marking the biggest international push to reduce violence in the country’s devastating conflict. The United Nations envoy, Staffan de Mistura, announced that peace talks would resume on March 7 if the cessation of hostilities “largely holds.”

If it does, it would be the first time international negotiations have brought any degree of quiet in Syria’s five-year civil war. But success requires adherence by multiple armed factions—and the truce is made more fragile because it allows fighting to continue against the Islamic State group and Nusra Front, which could easily reignite broader warfare.

The Syrian government and the opposition, including nearly 100 rebel groups, have said they will abide by the cease-fire despite serious skepticism about chances for success.

Archbishop Gallagher said the Vatican and its diplomats are working with people on the ground in Syria to foster interreligious dialogue in the region as part of the peacemaking effort.

“We are not in dialogue with Daesh,” Archbishop Gallagher said, using another name for the Islamic State. “Unfortunately, it’s true that [with] the extremists, particularly extremists who are prepared to embrace violence and terrorism, one is completely at a loss to say what one can do with such people,” he said.

Nevertheless, the archbishop stressed that “there will be an end to this conflict in Syria. It will take a lot of goodwill, a lot of sacrifice on the part many of the actors, but we have to bring it about. It must happen.”

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