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Vatican on Syria: ‘Don’t go in if you can’t get out’

WASHINGTON -- A senior Vatican official speaking today before a US congressional committee had blunt advice for American lawmakers who may be weighing the use of force to bring down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – in essence, don’t go in if you can’t get out.

“We know what happens when you [use force] without a clear exit strategy,” said Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, the Vatican’s envoy to the United Nations in New York.

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Chullikatt was referring to the 2003 US-led intervention in Iraq, where he served as the pope’s ambassador from 2006 to 2010. He described for a subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs the chaos he said he experienced in the aftermath of the US-led campaign.

Applying that experience to Syria, Chuillikatt said that “military intervention is not the solution.”

The Vatican official’s warning came on the same day President Barack Obama expressed “enormous frustration” over the lack of progress at peace talks currently being held in Geneva.

One of the Vatican’s most senior diplomats, Chullikatt, in his testimony, indirectly challenged US policy on Syria in another sense, by endorsing a negotiated settlement in which “all sectors of society join in deciding the future of the nation” without any preconditions.

The Obama administration has generally insisted that peace talks must exclude any role for Assad and his allies in a transitional government. Chullikatt, however, appeared to suggest that’s not a decision for Western powers to make.

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“After all, we’re not going to live in Syria, the Syrians are,” he said.

Because the Vatican (technically, the “Holy See”) is considered a sovereign state under international law, it enjoys diplomatic relations with 180 countries including the United States as well as observer status at the UN.

The focus of the Feb. 11 hearing of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations was the persecution of Christians around the world.

Chullikatt said that in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, law and order may have been “forcibly imposed” but Christians and other minorities enjoyed a basic level of security. Post-Saddam insecurity and sectarian tensions, he said, have decimated the Christian population.

From more than one million Christians prior to the first US-led Gulf War in 1991, Chullikatt estimated that today perhaps 300,000 Christians are left.

He warned that an expansion of the conflict in Syria could produce similar results.

Christian leaders in Syria are generally perceived as sympathetic to Assad, largely out of fear that Islamic radicals are gaining the upper hand among the rebel forces. In August 2013, an Eastern Catholic patriarch in Syria pointedly charged that any armed Western effort at regime change would be a “criminal act.”

Partly for that reason, the Vatican under Pope Francis has launched a full court diplomatic press to avoid expanding the conflict. Francis called a global day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria on Sept. 7, and on Jan. 13 the Vatican held a peace conference ahead of the Geneva II summit on Syria featuring American economist Jeffrey Sachs and Egyptian statesman Mohammad Elbaradei.

That conference ended with an appeal for “an immediate cease-fire” and “humanitarian assistance and reconstruction,” as well as a call for “all foreign powers … to stop the flow of arms funding that feed escalation of violence and destruction.”

John L. Allen Jr. is the Globe’s associate editor, covering global Catholicism. Allen can be reached at john.allen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr.

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