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Vatican keeps up drumbeat against war in Iraq


Fierce Vatican diplomacy aimed at blocking a war in Iraq continued in late February, with meetings between John Paul II and English Prime Minister Tony Blair, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, and the speaker of the Iranian parliament Mohammad Reza Khatami, brother of the country’s president.

The Vatican also kept up its rhetorical drumbeat, with unusually strong comments suggesting that armed force without United Nations authorization would be illegal, and that the United States may be acting on the basis of its desire to control Iraq’s oil resources.

On Feb. 23, John Paul II invited Catholics to a day of fast on Ash Wednesday, March 5, as a way of expressing their desire for peace. L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, featured the pope’s words about the possibility of war in its Monday edition, with the word “never” blazed across the front page in enormous type.

“Believers, whatever their religion, should proclaim that we will never be able to be happy opposing each other, and that the future of humanity can never be assured by terrorism and the logic of war,” the pope said.

On Feb. 27, the Vatican hosted a briefing session for all its accredited diplomats, more than 300, to explain its view on the fundamental role of the United Nations in resolving the Iraq conflict. One Western diplomat told NCR that the move was in response to a high volume of requests from diplomats for the Holy See to explain its strong antiwar line.

The recent flurry of high-profile visits to Pope John Paul II symbolizes the Vatican’s attempt to influence all sides in the debate over Iraq, since England and Spain both support the use of force, while Iran is one of the so-called “axis of evil” nations.

In recent weeks, the pope met British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, U.N. General-Secretary Kofi Annan and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. He sent Cardinal Roger Etchegaray as a special envoy to Baghdad (NCR, Feb. 21 and 28).

Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s foreign minister, warned Feb. 24 at a conference on peace at a Roman hotel that “a war of aggression would be a crime against peace,” especially if that war were launched “by one or more states” outside the framework of the United Nations.

“For us, everything must be undertaken and decided in the context of the United Nations,” Tauran said.

Meanwhile, the director of Vatican Radio, Jesuit Fr. Pasquale Borgomeo, asserted during a live broadcast Feb. 25 that it is “difficult to explain” American policy in Iraq without respect to the country’s oil resources. Iraq has the second-largest oil reserves in the world, estimated at 112 billion barrels.

Despite Blair’s recent statement that suggestions of oil interests behind the push in Iraq amount to a “conspiracy theory,” Borgomeo said that American antiwar protestors carrying signs reading “no blood for oil” may be on to something. He pointed to reports of November meetings between Iraqi opposition leaders and officials of American oil companies to discuss the postwar development of Iraqi oil fields.

The Bush administration has indicated it would use oil revenue to help finance the rebuilding of Iraq.

Not all Catholic figures were content with the Vatican’s full court press against the war.

“I have the impression that by now the Catholics who count are increasingly lined up under the banner of anti-Americanism,” said Bishop Alessandro Maggiolini of Como, Italy.

Despite the diplomatic frenzy, senior Vatican officials seem privately pessimistic that war in Iraq can be avoided.

“I hope for it strongly, but I don’t have much faith,” a senior official told NCR Feb. 25.

“I’m sorry to say this to your countrymen, but my impression is that America wants to get rid of Saddam Hussein at all costs, and even if he does disarm that won’t be enough to save himself,” the official said.

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

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2003