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Threat of War

Papal envoy, president dialogue and disagree


As Cardinal Pio Laghi, perhaps the last opponent of war President Bush will meet face-to-face prior to a U.S.-led attack against Iraq, made the case for peace, the president was engaged and attentive.

“He was interested, listening to me, communicating to me what is in his mind,” Laghi said of his 40-minute Ash Wednesday meeting with the president, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican James Nicholson. Their “frank” discussion was “a very good dialogue,” said Laghi.

Had he persuaded the president? “You’ll have to ask him,” quipped the veteran Vatican diplomat.

Bush was not persuaded, administration officials said after the meeting.

War with Iraq, Bush told Laghi, would be a “last resort,” but one the United States will be compelled to take to disarm that nation if left with no other options.

Allowing Saddam Hussein the opportunity to share weapons of mass destruction with terrorists or other rogue nations would be immoral, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told the press. “Removing the threat to the region will lead to a better, more peaceful world in which innocent Iraqis will have a better life,” said Fleischer.

Laghi, too, was unpersuaded.

Denied the opportunity to address the White House media following the meeting -- administration officials “told us not to do it,” said Laghi -- the papal envoy held a hastily called news conference two blocks from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. at the National Press Club. There he told a different group of reporters that war with Iraq would be “unjust” and “illegal.” Said Laghi: “A decision regarding the use of military force can only be taken within the framework of the United Nations.”

Laghi repeated that theme two-and-a-half hours later, during a homily at a Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Peace, he said, should be pursued “using the vast and rich patrimony of international law and institutions created for that very purpose.” Those institutions, he said, “may be incomplete” or “act too slowly at times” or “may not have yet even caught up with realities of our times that threaten world order.”

Still, he continued, “they are based on principles that are true and relative for all times: honest and patient dialogue between and among disagreeing parties, and the absolute duty of each member of the family of nations to comply fully with all its obligations.”

At NCR press time, Laghi was scheduled to deliver that message to Secretary of State Colin Powell in a meeting March 6, the day after his Oval Office session.

Iraq, Laghi told the press, “is obliged to fulfill completely and fully its international obligations regarding human rights and disarmament under the U.N. resolution.” Further, he said, Saddam Hussein has moved “too slowly” in cooperating with U.N. weapons inspectors.

Responding to an international press corps -- Laghi took questions in English, French, Spanish and Italian -- the papal envoy said:

War against Iraq threatens to create a “great gulf between Islam and Christianity” when the two faiths should be “building bridges.”

It is “up to the American government to consider the consequences” of how war will affect U.S./Vatican relations.

He was unaware of any plan, rumored in the Italian press, for Pope John Paul II to address the United Nations.

Laghi presented Bush with a letter from the pope in which John Paul II wrote that he is “praying for you and for America.” Said the pope: “I ask the Lord to inspire you to search for the ways of a stable peace, the noblest of human endeavors.”

Laghi said he and Bush discussed the Israeli/Palestinian situation. Laghi said he was told that the United States would more actively engage in a peace process after Iraq is disarmed. He urged the president to take action now rather than later. “We have to solve that problem” which is at the heart of unrest in the Middle East, said Laghi.

The 80-year-old Laghi was a logical messenger during the current papal peace offensive. As the Vatican’s ambassador the United States from 1984-90, Laghi was a neighbor to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and reportedly struck up a friendship with the Bush family.

Laghi said he was leaving Washington, “with hope … in spite of the fact that the situation is what it is.” Said Laghi, “I have to say that, because I am a priest.”

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 2003