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Following his election as Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron was grilled by the media about his beliefs as an evangelical Christian. Has the focus on faith, which began with Tony Blair, reached the point where it is harder than ever to hold religious beliefs and play an active role in political life?
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A prominent Vatican think tank has blamed the United States for turning Syria’s civil war into a multi-national conflict, and an ongoing bloodbath, that Pope Francis and his aides are trying to help the international community to resolve in the New Year.
The Pontifical Academy of Sciences has heavily criticised the Obama Administration for orchestrating “a large group of countries” in April 2012 to give “active financial and logistical support” to Syria’s rebels with the aim of toppling the Assad regime. The Academy hinted that this effort effectively killed a UN plan for a ceasefire and a negotiated political transition in Syria and opened a second and more deadly phase in the Middle Eastern country’s civil war.
The Pontifical Academy made the accusation in a “background” paper for an international “workshop” it is hosting on 13 January to find ways to secure a negotiated end to the war. It has titled the day-long meeting, “Syria: With a death toll of 126,000 and 300,000 orphans in 36 months of war, can we remain indifferent?” A line-up of international diplomats, statesmen and academics will take part in the session, which comes just nine days before Syria’s opposing factions are to meet for the United Nations-brokered Geneva 2 talks in Switzerland.
Featured speakers at the Vatican gathering include Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister; Pyotr Vladimirovich Stegny, Ambassador and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation; Mohamed ElBaradei, a law scholar and diplomat who was briefly the acting Vice President of Egypt (July-August 2013); and Miguel Angel Moratinos, Spain’s former foreign minister. Two Americans will also speak – Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University; and Dr Thomas Walsh, a member of the Unification Church (the “Moonies”) who is president of the Universal Peace Federation, founded in 2005 by the late Revd Sun Myung Moon.
“Too many lives have been shattered in recent times by the conflict in Syria, fuelling hatred and vengeance,” Pope Francis said on Christmas Day during his Urbi et Orbi message (“to the city and the world”). “Let us continue to ask the Lord to spare the beloved Syrian people further suffering and to enable the parties in conflict to put an end to violence and guarantee access to humanitarian aid,” he told a crowd of nearly 100,000 people in St Peter’s Square and the surrounding area.
Three days later, a delegation from the Syrian Government met with officials of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and hand-delivered a written message from President Bashar al-Assad to the Pope. Although the contents have not been made public, Syria’s state news agency said the letter conveys the Government’s willingness to hold peace talks but with the insistence that foreign countries stop supporting “the armed terrorist groups” that form the opposition. The news agency said Mr Assad thanked the Pope for calling for peace during his Urbi et Orbi address.
In the address, Francis said he was “happy today that followers of different religious confessions are joining us in our prayer for peace in Syria” and he invited atheists and agnostics to join the endeavour. He then prayed for peace in countries including Central African Republic, South Sudan, Nigeria and Iraq and asked God to “grant a favourable outcome to peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians”.
The Pope called for assistance for refugees again on the Sunday after Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Family. “Joseph, Mary and Jesus experienced the dramatic condition of refugees,” he said. He also called attention to victims of religious discrimination and persecution over the Christmas holidays. “Let us pray in particular for Christians that suffer discrimination because of the witness they render to Christ and the Gospel,” he said on Boxing Day, Feast of the Protomartyr Stephen.