ROME — As the Obama administration continues to look for ways to shut down the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, Vatican officials pressed US Secretary of State John Kerry Monday to find “humanitarian solutions” for suspected terrorists.
Kerry met in Rome with Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state and, in effect, the pope’s top diplomat.
According to the Vatican, the two men also discussed the Middle East, the Ebola epidemic, and the situation in Ukraine.
According to a Vatican spokesman, Kerry expressed a US commitment to avoid the escalation of tensions and the explosion of violence in the Middle East, and also to promote a resumption of negotiations between Israeli and Palestinians.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi said that on the subject of Guantanamo, Kerry pledged that the United States would pay attention to the Vatican’s concerns.
But he acknowledged the situation is complicated: “There’s the problem of where can the current detainees go, where can they be welcome,” Lombardi said.
“There’s a desire by the Vatican to follow the situation closely, even if [the precise solution] is obviously not among the Vatican’s competences, but the Holy See favors adequate humanitarian solutions that lead to the closing the Guantanamo prison,” he said.
The Vatican’s position aligns with the one held by US bishops, who have repeatedly requested the closing of the detention center.
The last official statement from the bishops’ conference on the matter was penned by Las Cruces Bishop Oscar Cantú, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace.
In a Dec. 9 letter to Clifford M. Sloan, special envoy from the US Department of State for Guantanamo Closure, Cantú wrote, “I realize that the process of arranging for such transfers [of the cleared detainees] is a delicate one, involving negotiations with the receiving countries as you seek to assure that security and human rights concerns are respected.”
Cantú also said that an expedited transfer of detainees out of Guantanamo and the eventual closing of the facility would represent a major step in “allowing the United States to regain its moral standing as a defender of human rights.”
Cantú added that for many years, “We have urged the closing of Guantanamo because it has become a symbol of violations of basic human rights as detainees have been abused and held in indefinite detention without trial.”
According to the US Defense Department, more than 50 countries have agreed to receive the prisoners, but very few have done so officially.
Over the weekend, six prisoners were released and welcomed in the South American country of Uruguay. It’s the largest release since 2009.
Kerry has been in Rome since Saturday morning, primarily to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss a resolution that Palestinians will present to the United Nations Wednesday demanding an Israeli withdrawal to its 1967 boundaries and the recognition of a Palestinian state.
Also present in the meeting Monday was Kenneth Hackett, US ambassador to the Holy See.
Last Thursday, US President Barack Obama summoned top administration officials to the White House for a meeting about closing Guantanamo.
The center’s prisoner population is currently at 136, according to the administration, down from a high of nearly 700 and its lowest point since shortly after it opened in January 2002, with 68 additional prisoners cleared for transfer. Officials have said at least five more will be moved by Dec. 31.
Congressional Republicans have opposed closing the center on the grounds that the release of suspected terrorists could put Americans at risk.