VATICAN CITY: The Vatican urged an unconditional ceasefire in Syria and the involvement of all regional players including Iran in peace talks starting next week, as US Secretary of State John Kerry visited the Holy See on Tuesday.
Kerry said after meeting with Pope Francis's right-hand man Pietro Parolin that the US welcomed Vatican support for the Geneva II talks due to begin on January 22.
"It is very important support and I know that the pope is particularly concerned about the massive numbers of displaced human beings and violence that has taken over 130,000 lives," Kerry told reporters at the US embassy.
State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki meanwhile denied a report in the BBC and the Guardian newspaper that Britain and the United States have told the main Syrian opposition that they will stop their support if it fails to send a delegation to Geneva II.
Kerry "did not indicate that the United States was planning to cut off assistance" to the opposition in his public or private pronouncements, she said.
A Vatican statement following a workshop on Syria on Monday said the Holy See was ready to support all religious communities in the country towards reconciliation and said the recent interim deal over Iran's nuclear programme could have a positive effect.
"To build the basis for regional peace, Geneva II needs to ensure inclusive participation of all parties to this conflict, within the region and beyond," it said.
The deal with Iran creates "a vital foundation for a lasting peace in Syria" and "gives the world great hope that an extended period of grave distrust between Iran and other nations in the region and beyond might now be followed by a new era of trust and even cooperation".
Russia, the chief ally of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, is keen to see Iran at the Geneva II table, but the United States has said Tehran should first back an accord on a transitional government in Syria.
"The first and most urgent step... should be an immediate ceasefire and end to violence of all kinds, an end without political preconditions," the Vatican said, echoing a joint call by Moscow and Washington on Monday for local ceasefires and humanitarian corridors.
"All internal combatants should put down their weapons. All foreign powers should take immediate steps to stop the flow of arms and arms funding that feed the escalation of violence and destruction," it said.
Kerry said Parolin had also asked for a briefing on the status of the Middle East peace process following the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks and ahead of the pope's own visit to the region in May.
"Obviously there are issues of enormous concerns to the Holy See not just about peace but also about the freedom of access for religious worship in Jerusalem for all religions," Kerry said.
Kerry said he had also discussed possible Vatican involvement in efforts to restore stability in South Sudan.
"I think that our efforts over the last days could be augmented by the efforts of the Holy See with respect to trying to end the violence and bring about a peaceful resolution," he said.