Vatican’s Roadmap for Syria: A “Bridge” Between Communities

A week before the pope delivered his apostolic exhortation, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue gave a terse speech on similar topics.

Last weekend, Pope Benedict XVI delivered his apostolic exhortation, entitled “Ecclesia in Medio Oriente,” in Lebanon. This long and detailed document, a summary of which can be found at the Vatican news site, lays out the hopes, concerns and general attitude of the Catholic Church on the church in the Middle East.

A week before this, however, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue gave a terse, compact speech discussing many of the same key points, focusing specifically on what lies ahead for Syria:

In his speech, [Colombian priest] Father Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot — an expert on Islam and the Middle East, who headed the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies for a number of years before being called to the Curia in the early summer – summarises the Vatican’s five priorities for Syria: “an immediate end to violence from whatever part; dialogue towards reconciliation as the necessary path to respond to the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people; preserve the unity of the Syrian people regardless of ethnicity and religious affiliation; an appeal from the Holy See to the international community to dedicate itself to a process of peace in Syria and the entire region for the benefit and well-being of all humanity.” …

Father Guixot underlines that by avoiding “partisan politics,” the Christian community does not show “cowardice” but “courage”: a “bridge” between different communities. This statement is also an implicit call to Christian leaders to try to ensure that the Church does not take sides.

In his speech, the number two man of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue recognizes the legitimacy of the government in Damascus, unlike Western chancelleries, but stresses that the “aspirations” of the Syrian people are “legitimate” and should not be ignored or crushed as if they were “foreign forces,” as many Christian leaders are doing. It is important to note that the international community’s call for continued efforts towards peace does mention the possibility of some form of armed conflict. …

According to the Vatican, human rights, particularly religious freedom, can only benefit from democratic regimes taking root in the country and “Christians in the Arab world, alongside their fellow Muslim citizens, are ready to play their part as citizens who together strive to build societies that respect the human rights of all citizens.”

The first elections that took place following the “spring” in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt have led to the victory of Islamic parties which “have adopted the language of pragmatism and moderation.” In response to these results, the Holy See has emphasized the need to cultivate a “culture of democracy” that can prevent this development from “descending into a negative form of “majoritarianism.”

But Guixot also understands the reasons behind the scepticism expressed by many moderate Muslim leaders towards western democratic systems, associated with “atheist” and “non Islamic” values they see coming from the West and underlines the importance of documents produced by Egyptian university Al-Azhar – the most respected centre of Sunni Islamic learning. These documents support the building of democratic systems, human rights and freedom of worship within the context of Islamic tradition. The Holy See upholds this, against groups like the Salafi movement, which uses “religion as a tool to create discord among the various components of the nation.”

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