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Vatican criticism of war plans chills relations with U.S.


John Paul II repeatedly pleaded for peace over the Christmas holidays, joining his voice to his senior aides who for months have been expressing increasingly strident opposition to a U.S.-led military attack on Iraq. Though the pope only once mentioned Iraq by name, he used the platform offered by the holiday events to deliver a pointed antiwar message.

Senior Vatican officials, meanwhile, have been far more blunt, complaining about U.S. “unilateralism” and warning that an American strike in the Middle East would arouse anger across the Islamic world.

The criticism amounts to a chill in what had previously been a warm relationship between the Bush White House and the Vatican. On a range of issues from stem cell research to public funding for religious schools, Bush and the pope had appeared to be largely in sync. John Paul has now emerged, however, as perhaps the most stern moral critic of Bush’s push for “regime change” in Iraq.

The papal peace initiative echoes John Paul’s opposition to the U.S.-led Gulf War in 1991, as well as to the United Nations-imposed sanctions regime in Iraq which, according to some estimates, have contributed to the loss of more than one million Iraqi lives.

Even before the Christmas barrage of statements, the Bush administration appeared resigned to moving ahead, if war proves inevitable, without John Paul’s imprimatur. In a Nov. 27 interview with NCR and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson said that while he “would prefer to have the pope’s support,” he accepted that “we won’t always see eye to eye.”

The pope’s drumbeat began in his homily on Christmas Eve, when John Paul recalled the image of the baby Jesus in the manger, saying he was “born for a humanity searching for freedom and peace.”

“It is a sign of hope for the whole human family; a sign of peace for those suffering from conflicts of every kind; a sign of freedom for the poor and oppressed,” the pope said.

The next morning, during his traditional Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi blessing, the pope called on people of all faiths to outlaw “all forms of intolerance and discrimination” and to “extinguish the ominous smoldering of a conflict which, with the joint efforts of all, can be avoided.”

“From the cave of Bethlehem there rises today an urgent appeal to the world not to yield to mistrust, suspicion and discouragement, even though the tragic reality of terrorism feeds uncertainties and fears,” the pope said.

“May humanity accept the Christmas message of peace!” John Paul implored.

An estimated 1.5 billion viewers watch the live telecast of the Christmas liturgies each year in nearly 60 countries.

On New Year’s Eve the pope took part in the traditional “Te Deum,” or hymn of praise to God in thanksgiving for the closing year. Among the things for which the pope offered thanks was “the growing ecclesial sensibility for the values of peace, life and protection of creation.”

Then on New Year’s Day, designated by Paul VI as the World Day of Peace, the pope made his most explicit comments.

“Despite the serious and repeated attacks to the serene and joint cohabitation of peoples, peace is possible and a duty,” the pope said to applause. “Indeed, peace is the most precious good to invoke from God and to build with every effort.”

The pope urged listeners to make a small “gesture of peace” -- to their families, at work, in their communities -- to broaden a global culture of peace.

“In dealing with ongoing conflicts and tension growing more threatening, I pray that peaceful ways of settling conflicts be sought after, driven by loyal and constructive cooperation in accordance with the principles of international law,” the pope said.

John Paul called for cooperation among “all those who believe in God,” saying that “authentic religious beliefs do not put individuals and peoples in conflict with each other, but rather encourage them to build a peaceful world together.”

On Jan. 13, in his annual address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, the pope returned to the theme.

“What are we to say of the threat of a war that could strike the people of Iraq, the land of the prophets, a people already sorely tried by more than 12 years of embargo?” the pope said. “War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations. As the Charter of the United Nations Organization and international law itself remind us, war cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good, except as the very last option and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations.”

The comments join those from a chorus of Vatican officials. Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s foreign minister, used perhaps the strongest language in a Dec. 23 interview with the Roman newspaper La Repubblica. He cited one Arab minister who said an attack on Iraq would “open the gates of hell.”

“We need to think about the consequences for the civilian population and about the repercussions in the Islamic world. A type of anti-Christian, anti-Western crusade could be incited because some ignorant masses mix everything together,” Tauran said.

The French prelate was critical of what he called an American tendency toward unilateral action.

“A single member of the international community cannot decide: ‘I’m doing this and you others can either help me or stay home.’ If that were the case, the entire system of international rules would collapse. We’d risk the jungle,” he said.

Archbishop Renato Martino, an Italian who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, made a similar point in a Jan. 4 interview with the same paper.

“Evidently, unilateralism is unacceptable,” Martino said. “We cannot think that there is a universal policeman who takes it upon himself to punish those who act badly. … The United States, being part of the international assembly, has to adapt to the exigencies of others.”

The lone exception to the quasi-pacifist Vatican line came in a Nov. 2 editorial in the semi-official journal Civiltà Cattolica, which suggested that an American attack on Iraq, even without authorization from the United Nations, could be justified if there were an imminent danger of aggression from Hussein. Still, the journal insisted that a “preventive war” in the absence of a specific threat would be immoral.

Religious orders and Catholic movements have joined the antiwar push. The Community of Sant’Egidio organized marches for peace in dozens of cities around the world Jan. 1 to coincide with the papal peace message. The most dramatic gesture came from priests of the Comboni order in the Italian region of Puglia, who refused to celebrate Mass on the Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6, as a sort of “eucharistic strike” to protest against preparations for war.

John Paul’s opposition to Western policy on Iraq brought an unusual rebuke from conservative Italian political analyst Ernesto Galli Della Loggia Jan. 7, in a front-page opinion piece in Italy’s most-read daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera. Della Loggia is normally a booster of the Wojtyla pontificate.

“Does anyone remember papal pronouncements comparable to those of recent weeks on the occasion of that terrible decade-long war unleashed by Saddam Hussein against Iran in 1980? And the roughly 200 million Kurds massacred with Saddam’s gas in the mid-1980s; how many protests were raised by the Holy See commensurate with the enormity of the crime?

“To speak frankly,” Della Loggia wrote, “the impression is that it’s only when the issue is the West, and more specifically the United States, that the pope’s voice becomes a tuning fork and the Catholic world expresses its maximum mobilization ‘in favor of peace.’ ”

As war preparations built throughout the fall, Vatican officials became steadily more critical.

In early September, Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican’s office for ecumenism, told reporters that he rejected attacking Iraq, saying there are neither “the motives nor the proof” to justify a war. In mid-September, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the doctrinal office, said, “The concept of preventive war does not appear in the catechism.”

In a Sept. 24 interview with NCR, Archbishop Stephen Hamao, head of the Vatican office for migrants and refugees, said, “I’m very worried by what the U.S. is doing. … A war between the United States and Iraq could not help but seem to many of the world’s people a war between white Westerners and Arabs.”

Other Vatican officials who have made similar comments include Cardinals Roger Etchegaray, Ignace Moussa Daoud and Camillo Ruini, as well as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and Fr. Pasquale Borgomeo, head of Vatican Radio.

At least one Iraqi has publicly expressed gratitude for the Vatican push for peace: newly appointed Auxiliary Bishop Andraos Abouna of Baghdad, personally ordained a bishop by John Paul in a Jan. 6 ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica, along with 11 other new bishops from seven countries.

“When the pope speaks about Baghdad, he does so from the heart, because this is the land of Abraham, the first believer in God. For us it is the Holy Land,” Abouna told NCR in a Jan. 8 interview in Rome.

Yet Abouna -- who helped pull charred bodies out of the Amiriya bomb shelter in Baghdad, obliterated by U.S. stealth bombers on Feb. 13, 1991, killing 600 to 1,000 civilians -- was also realistic about the likely impact of the Vatican interventions.

“Politicians act in their own interests, often for economic reasons,” he said. “They don’t so much care what religious leaders say.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

Related Web sites

Community of Sant’Egidio

National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee

Pax Christi USA

Society of Friends Peacebuilding Unit

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 2003