By NICOLE WINFIELD
The Associated Press
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 12:06 PM
VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI issued an urgent appeal Sunday to military and political leaders to consider the safety of Libyan civilians and ensure they have access to emergency aid in his first comments on the U.S.-led military assault on Libya.
The pope didn't identify which leaders he was referring to in comments at his traditional Sunday blessing. Significantly, he didn't demand an immediate end to the U.S. and European air and missile strikes.
Rather, he directed his appeal in general to "those who have the political and military responsibility to take to heart the safety and security of citizens and guarantee that they have access to humanitarian aid."
Benedict said the outbreak of hostilities had sparked "great fear and alarm in me" and said he was praying for peace in the region.
Two weeks ago, Benedict lamented the deaths and humanitarian crisis caused by the fighting between Moammar Gadhafi's forces and rebels.
The Vatican has been remarkably quiet since then, and particularly since the U.N. Security Council authorized military force to halt Gadhafi's crackdown: the Vatican newspaper reported on the developments matter-of-factly, without commentary.
That was not the case eight years ago in the run-up to the Iraq war, when Pope John Paul II voiced emphatic opposition to U.S.-led military action and sent an envoy to Washington to try to avert it.
Yet in 1994, nearly two years into Bosnia's civil war, John Paul called for humanitarian intervention to end the suffering and said the church endorsed action to disarm aggressors.
In 1998, the Vatican opposed NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia launched after Serbia's leader Slobodan Milosevic refused to sign a peace deal for separatist Kosovo, but John Paul also said the international community couldn't remain quiet as innocents were forced from their homes amid repression and violence.
On Sunday, Avvenire, the influential newspaper of the Italian Catholic bishops' conference, said the Libyan "war" was necessary and justified, "animated by the noble motives of humanitarian intervention."
In a front-page editorial, Avvenire praised the French for having recognized the rebels diplomatically and "taken up the flag of interventionism with the aim of canceling out its past links to the dictators of the Maghreb and relaunching French grandeur in the Mediterranean."
Recently, the Vatican has been chastened for what some in the Arab world considered interference in internal affairs: The pre-eminent institute of Islamic learning in the Sunni Muslim world froze talks with the Vatican earlier this year after Benedict called for better protection of Christians in Egypt.
Benedict's appeal had followed the New Year's bombing on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria that killed 21 people.