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The Vatican is sending mixed signals about its position on the U.N.-authorized military intervention in Libya.

On Thursday, Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, the top Vatican official in Tripoli, told the Catholic news agency Fides that Western airstrkes--or, as he put it, "so-called humanitarian raides"--have killed at least 40 civilians in the Libyan capital, according to "reliable people." NATO says it's investigating the report but has so far confirmed no civilian deaths. Libyan officials claim that over 100 civilians have been killed in the coalition airstrikes.

This isn't the first time that Martinelli has denounced Western air strikes in Libya. Last week, he told Asia News that "a few days before [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy decided to bomb, there were some glimmers of hope for real mediation. But the bombs have damaged everything."

Not all Catholic leaders share Martinelli's view, however. Back in February, the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano described Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi as "merciless" and voiced concern about reports of "massacres of the civilian population." In mid-March, Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Catholic bishops' conference, argued that military action in Libya was necessary, justified, and "animated by the noble motives of humanitarian intervention," according to The Associated Press.

Where does the Pope stand? In an address in St. Peter's Square this past Sunday, Benedict XVI called for a ceasefire in Libya, urging world leaders to "immediately start a dialogue to suspend the use of arms" by all sides and conveying his "trepidation for the safety and security of the civilian population." The Pope's words, according to Francis X. Rocca at the Religion News Service, represented a shift from his position a week earlier, when he pressed world leaders to guarantee civilian access to humanitarian relief but stopped short of demanding an end to the military campaign.

Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, opposed the Iraq war and NATO airstrikes on Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia during the Kosovo war but called for humanitarian intervention during Bosnia's civil war, the AP explains. The National Catholic Reporter's John L. Allen Jr. argues that, in Libya, the Vatican must balance the precedent John Paul II set in Bosnia for humanitarian intervention with "one of the time-honored principles of Vatican diplomacy, famously expressed by Pope Paul VI ... that 'war is always a defeat for humanity.'" He continues:

Vatican diplomats these days tend to be particularly anxious about any Western use of force directed at a primarily Muslim nation, worrying that it might fan a 'clash of civilizations' which, among other things, could make life worse for the already embattled Christian community across the Middle East.

When Benedict XVI's U.K. ambassador, Antonio Mennini, returned from observing the international community's London summit on Libya earlier this week, he told Vatican Radio that the discussions "seemed to raise again the question of the fundamental vocation of the international community to respond to the basic needs of a population that is extremely exhausted."

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