By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
The Vatican announced this evening that Monsignor Pietro Parolin, under-secretary for Relations with States, will represent the Holy See at tomorrow's Annapolis conference on peace in the Middle East. Parolin will be accompanied by Monsignor Franco Coppola, another official of the Secretariat of State.
Representation at the Annapolis conference has come together only at the last moment, and the Vatican's "Foreign Minister," Archbishop Dominque Mamberti,Under-Secretary for Relations with States in the Secretariat of State, is in Spain and unable to take part. Details for Parolin's participation were finalized Monday afternoon, and he left immediately for Annapolis.
The fact Parolin does not carry the diplomatic rank of a foreign minister could reduce the Holy See's influence at Annapolis, although Parolin is a seasoned and widely respected diplomat with a deep knowledge of the Middle East.
Coppola is another veteran of difficult diplomatic assignments. In 2003, he accompanied Cardinal Roger Etchegaray as Pope John Paul II's special envoy to Baghdad just ahead of the U.S.-led invasion, and in 2006 he was part of the Vatican's delegation to an international conference to resolve the conflict in Lebanon.
The aim of the Annapolis conference, hosted by the Bush administration, is to revive stalled peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will attend.
The Vatican has long regarded peace in what Catholics generally call the "Holy Land" a top diplomatic priority. In part, Vatican officials see the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a long-festering source of global tensions, including those between Islam and the West; in part, too, the Vatican is concerned about a growing exodus of Christians out of the land of Christ's birth and the earliest development of Christianity.
During his Angelus address yesterday after concelebrating Mass with 23 new cardinals, Pope Benedict XVI expressed strong support for the Annapolis conference.
"On Tuesday in Annapolis, in the United States, Israelis and Palestinians plan to relaunch the process of negotiations, with the help of the international community, to find a just and definitive solution to the conflict that has bloodied the Holy Land for sixty years and provoked so many tears and so much suffering for the two peoples," the pope said.
"I ask you to join the Day of Prayer set aside today by the bishops' conference of the United States of America for asking the Spirit of God to bring peace to that region so dear to us, and the gifts of wisdom and courage for all the protagonists of this important meeting," he said.