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Threat of War

Diplomatic blitz for peace


While it’s true, as Joseph Stalin observed, that the pope has no divisions, he has a unique bully pulpit, a roster of ambassadors and enough informal channels of activism to make himself a formidable player in global diplomacy, even without the normal military accouterment.

John Paul II has put those resources to work to try to stop a war in Iraq, and in mid-February that activity reached a crescendo, with visits by Iraqi Vice Premier Tariq Aziz, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, plus an extraordinary mission to Baghdad by papal emissary Cardinal Roger Etchegaray. The next installment in the campaign was to come Feb. 22, with a visit from British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Speculation continues to circulate in Rome that the pope may also send an emissary to U.S. President George Bush to make the case for peace.

The papal antiwar line prompted robust Catholic participation in a Feb. 16 peace march in Rome, reportedly the world’s largest on a day of pro-peace demonstrations across the globe. Even traditionally conservative Catholic movements such as Comunione e Liberazione joined the protests, which brought some 1 million people into the Roman streets.

In this diplomatic blitz, the Vatican has struggled to remain above the political fray, calling equally on the United States to stand down but also for Iraq to disarm. Yet some Vatican rhetoric continues to be sharply critical of U.S. policy, and some symbolism surrounding the Aziz visit, especially the presence of an Eastern-rite Catholic bishop once convicted of running arms to the PLO, hinted at an anti-U.S., anti-Israel tilt -- if not in the Vatican, at least among some Catholic actors with whom the Vatican is collaborating.

Aziz’s Feb. 13-16 trip to Italy was arranged by Fr. Jean Marie Benjamin, 56, a French priest living in Italy who has written books, produced documentary films and recorded songs against the U.N.-imposed sanctions in Iraq as well as against a possible war.

Benjamin, who has known Aziz since 1998 and describes himself as a friend, spoke Feb. 17 in an exclusive interview with NCR.

A former U.N. official and classical music composer, Benjamin told NCR that he wrote on Jan. 12 to Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the pope’s foreign minister, asking if the pope would receive Aziz if he came to Rome. Tauran sent a reply by fax 48 hours later, Benjamin said, indicating that if a request came from Iraq’s embassy to the Holy See, it would receive a favorable reply.

Aziz, a member of the Chaldean Catholic church, met with the pope Feb. 14, in a session scheduled for 15 minutes that actually lasted a half-hour. Aziz later saw Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano and Tauran.

A Vatican statement said Aziz assured church officials “of the Iraqi government’s willingness to cooperate with the international community, particularly in regard to disarmament.”

Speculation had surrounded the possibility that Aziz might invite John Paul on a dramatic last-minute visit to Baghdad, but Aziz told reporters during a Friday night news conference at Rome’s Foreign Press Club that under current security conditions such a trip would be inadvisable. Vatican spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls said the idea of a trip was a “closed chapter.”

Benjamin told NCR that he believes the Aziz trip produced three results. First, he said, it reminded the world that Iraq is a lay republic. “Certainly nobody from bin Laden’s circle would go pray at the tomb of Francis, a Catholic saint,” Benjamin said.

Second, Benjamin said, the trip “reopened a door to dialogue indirectly through the Holy See.” Finally, it made the point that Iraq “has not threatened anyone.”

Yet Aziz did not project a consistently pacific image. In that news conference at the Foreign Press Club, he generated new controversy when he refused to take a question from a correspondent from Maariv, an Israeli daily. “When I came to this press conference, it was not my intention to take questions from the Israeli media,” Aziz said, flatly refusing to take the question even when asked to do so by the president of the club. Boos, whistles and some walkouts ensued, though the news conference went forward.

Later, Rome’s center-left mayor, Walter Veltroni, cancelled a meeting with Aziz in light of what Veltroni called Aziz’s “unacceptable” behavior.

The trip to Assisi, however, went ahead as planned. Fr. Vincenzo Coli, custodian of the monastery, said the decision to welcome the Iraqi deputy prime minister was not political.

“Here we follow the teachings of Francis,” Coli said. “We never ask a pilgrim, ‘Who are you? What’s your program?’ ”

Etchegaray, meanwhile, met Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein on Saturday, Feb. 15, after several days of uncertainty. (Italian reports suggested that the 80-year-old French cardinal was shuffled around various sites in Baghdad for almost two hours before the meeting, apparently in light of security concerns, before arriving in the office where he and Hussein spoke for an hour and a half).

“He appeared to me a man in good health, seriously conscious of his responsibilities, which he must face before his people,” Etchegaray told reporters afterwards. “I’m convinced that today Saddam Hussein wants to avoid war.”

Etchegaray said the Iraqi people need a “just and lasting peace after many years of suffering, with whom the pope and the universal church have always expressed their solidarity.”

While Vatican officials have privately said Etchegaray carried a letter from John Paul II in which the pope urged Hussein to cooperate with weapons inspectors and all United Nations resolutions, Etchegaray would only say that he believes “peace is still possible in Iraq and for Iraq.”

Annan’s Feb. 18 session with John Paul II was not expected to produce dramatic new diplomatic initiatives. In a statement afterwards, the Vatican said the two leaders found themselves in agreement on the “essential role of the United Nations.” They also expressed the hope that “just and effective solutions can yet be found to the challenges of the moment, in respect of international law.”

Annan was also briefed by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state, and Etchegaray.

During his half-day visit to Assisi, Aziz visited the tomb of St. Francis and was given a replica of one of the lamps lit last Jan. 24, when leaders of the world’s religions joined John Paul II in Assisi to pray for peace. He was also shown the ivory horn that St. Francis received in Egypt in 1219-1220, when Francis met with Sultan Melek el Kamel despite the bad blood generated by the Crusades. The horn is considered a symbol of Christian/Muslim understanding.

One curious footnote to the Assisi visit was the presence alongside Aziz of Auxiliary Bishop Hilarion Cappuci, a member of the Syrian Greek-Melkite church who served in Jerusalem in the 1960s and 1970s and holds the personal title of “patriarch.” Cappuci told reporters he had come to pray that “the angels return anew to sing in heaven of peace on earth,” adding that he believes Iraq is serious about complying with the terms of resolution 1441.

Some, however, might question Capucci’s credentials as a peacemaker. He was arrested by Israeli security forces in 1974 on his way back from a trip to Lebanon after his Mercedes sedan was found loaded with TNT and rifles headed for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. At the time Capucci belonged to Fatah, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s main faction, and was a member of the PLO’s parliament-in-exile. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, but released in 1977 after a personal appeal from Pope Paul VI.

Capucci, now almost 82, has lived since 1977 in a private apartment in Rome.

Some observers suggested that Capucci’s presence in Assisi gave the visit an unavoidably political coloring. Benjamin, however, didn’t see it that way.

“It would be incredible if a bishop of the Catholic church couldn’t go to pray at the tomb of St. Francis,” Benjamin said. “Everyone can go to Assisi, even followers of other religions. Why not Capucci?”

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

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 2003