Catholic News Service photos
People walk near destroyed buildings and debris in Deir al-Zor, Syria, Sept. 4.
Catholic News Service photos
People walk near destroyed buildings and debris in Deir al-Zor, Syria, Sept. 4.
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis asked leaders of the world's 20 largest economies to "lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution" to the Syrian civil war and promote instead a "peaceful solution through dialogue and negotiation."

The pope's words appeared in a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, host of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, Sept. 5-6. The letter was dated Sept. 4 and released by the Vatican the following day, as U.S. lawmakers prepared to vote on President Barack Obama's proposal for a military attack on Syria.

Also Sept. 5, the pope's foreign minister met with ambassadors to underscore the Vatican's concerns over the war, including the fate of Syria's Christian minority and the danger posed by extremists among opponents to the government of President Bashar Assad.

Over the past two-and-a-half years, a civil war between Assad's government and rebel forces has killed more than 100,000 people, driven 2 million refugees out of Syria and displaced more than 4 million inside the country.

Obama has called for military strikes to punish the government, which the U.S. blames for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus that reportedly killed more than 1,400 people, including children.

In his letter to Putin, Pope Francis wrote that, "from the very beginning of the conflict in Syria, one-sided interests have prevailed and, in fact, hindered the search for a solution that would have avoided the senseless massacre now unfolding."

Putin is Assad's major foreign backer, but Vatican officials stressed that the pope's letter was addressed to the Russian president in his role as host of the G-20 summit, which is dedicated primarily to financial and economic issues.

"Without peace, there can be no form of economic development," the pope wrote. "Violence never begets peace, the necessary condition for development."

Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican's secretary for relations with states, made a similar appeal for dialogue and negotiation in his remarks to more than 70 ambassadors accredited to the Holy See.

The archbishop said any resolution of the Syrian conflict must not divide the country into ethnic or religious enclaves or infringe on its "territorial integrity" -- presumably a warning against redrawing national borders.

Archbishop Mamberti also called for defending Syria's "minorities, including the Christians," and their right to "profess publicly their own religion and contribute to the common good" in the Muslim-majority country.

Christian leaders inside Syria have frequently expressed fears over their fate in case Assad's government should fall.

"A reason for particular worry is the growing presence in Syria of extremist groups, often coming from other countries," Archbishop Mamberti said. "Hence the importance of exhorting the population and also the opposition groups to keep their distance from such extremists and openly and clearly oppose terrorism."

Also on Sept. 5, the Vatican released more details about a prayer vigil for peace that Pope Francis will lead Sept. 7 in St. Peter's Square.

Among the readings will be prayers for peace composed by several previous popes, and among the participants will be five couples representing Syria, Egypt, the Holy Land, the U.S., and Russia.

Echoing appeals of Pope Francis and Catholic prelates in Syria, two leaders of the U.S. bishops' conference urged President Barack Obama to seek a political solution.

"We have heard the urgent calls of the successor of St. Peter, Pope Francis, and our suffering brother bishops of the venerable and ancient Christian communities of the Middle East. As one, they beg the international community not to resort to military intervention in Syria," said Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Richard Pates, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace in a letter released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Sept. 4.

The letter affirmed the bishops' prayers for the administration and acknowledged that "that the situation in Syria is complex," and said they "appreciate the patience and restraint that your Administration has exercised to date."

Cardinal Dolan of New York and Bishop Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, affirmed Obama's decision to invite public dialogue and congressional review of possible military action, saying they wanted to contribute to that discussion in their capacity as pastors and teachers.

"We join you in your absolute condemnation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria," they said. "These indiscriminate weapons have no place in the arsenals of the family of nations. With you we mourn for the lives lost and grieve with the families of the deceased."

The clerics said they remain concerned for the more than 100,000 Syrians who have died and the 6 million who remain refugees or are displaced within their country.

However, they said, both the pope and the Syrian Catholic bishops have made clear "that a military attack will be counterproductive, will exacerbate an already deadly situation and will have unintended negative consequences."

They concluded by noting that the long-standing position of the USCCB is that Syria needs a political solution.

"We ask the United States to work urgently and tirelessly with other governments to obtain a cease-fire, initiate serious negotiations, provide impartial humanitarian assistance, and encourage efforts to build an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, including Christians and other minorities."

Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Pates sent a similar letter to each member of the House of Representatives and the Senate Sept. 5.