UPDATE 1-Syria's Assad sends message to Pope Francis, Vatican says

Sat Dec 28, 2013 10:20am EST

(Adds background, Geneva talks in January, missing priest)

VATICAN CITY Dec 28 (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has sent Pope Francis a private message, the Vatican said on Saturday, without disclosing its contents.

It was the first known time Assad has sent a direct message to the pontiff since the start of Syria's civil war in 2011. Pope Francis has made numerous appeals for an end to the conflict, the latest on Christmas Day.

Vatican sources said the message likely included the Syrian government's position ahead of peace talks due to start on Jan. 22 under U.N. auspices in Geneva.

The Vatican, which has permanent observer status at the United Nations, also has a representative to U.N. organisations in Geneva.

The Vatican said a delegation headed by Joseph Sweid, a Syrian minister of state, held talks in the Vatican with the pope's secretary of state, Archbishop Pietro Parolin and his foreign minister, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti.

"The delegation brought a message from President Assad for the Holy Father and illustrated the position of the Syrian government," a statement said.

Syria's civil war between forces loyal to Assad and mostly Sunni Muslim rebels fighting to topple him has killed more than 100,000 people since March 2011.

The Vatican is also keen to have information on the fate of Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, a Jesuit priest who supported the rebels and disappeared in July in eastern Syria.

Francis has taken a personal interest in the Syrian conflict.

In September he led a worldwide day of prayer for peace in the country and sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was hosting the G20 summit, telling world powers that any military solution in Syria would be a "futile pursuit".

Putin was opposed to U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to use air strikes to punish Assad for a chemical weapons attack which the West blamed on the Syrian government.

Assad's government denied it was responsible and the air strikes never took place following Syria's agreement to dismantle it chemical weapons. (Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Rosalind Russell)

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