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Threat of War

Mission to White House sends message to Islam


Though Pope John Paul II’s last-ditch appeal to President George Bush to avoid war in Iraq packs undeniable drama, there’s a sense in which Cardinal Pio Laghi’s mission has precious little to do with changing minds in the White House.

The 80-year-old former papal ambassador to the United States is also speaking, indirectly but unmistakably, to Cairo and Tehran, Khartoum and Peshawar, and Jakarta and Abuja. Laghi’s very presence in Washington speaks a message to the Islamic street: This is not our war.

Making that point is seen by Vatican diplomats as especially urgent in light of fears over the fate of Christian minorities in Islamic nations. In several such places, Christians are facing increasing strain.

In the eastern islands of Indonesia, for example, white-uniformed militiamen of Laskar Jihad are forcibly converting Christians to Islam. This campaign has cost the lives of 5,000 to 6,000 people. In Bangladesh, small radical groups supporting Osama bin Laden have bombed or burned down churches.

In Sudan, some estimate that as many as 2 million people, chiefly Christians, have been killed in a civil war fought by the radical Islamic regime in the North of the country against the non-Arab population in the South.

Since the first intifada in the 1980s, there has been a steady exodus of Arab Christians out of the Middle East, fleeing conflict, economic collapse and a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism. Today more Christians born in Jerusalem live in Sydney, Australia, than in Jerusalem. More Christians from Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, reside in Belize in Central America than are left in Beit Jala.

In Iraq, some 200,000 Christians have left since the first Gulf War. At the start of 1991, the Catholic population of Baghdad was more than 500,000. Today, Catholics number about 175,000.

“It’s like a biblical exodus,” one Vatican official said in mid-February.

This is the context in which last week the Vatican ended almost a month of speculation by formally asking the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See to arrange a meeting between Laghi and Bush. Rome had been filled with speculation about such a mission, especially after John Paul II dispatched French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray to Saddam Hussein in mid-February.

Vatican officials, speaking to NCR on background, said that debate within the Secretariat of State over whether or not to send Laghi, a personal friend of the Bush family, boiled down to two positions. Those opposed argued that doing so would feed American arrogance by bolstering the idea that war is Bush’s decision to make. This camp preferred to treat the United Nations as the proper interlocutor.

(Ironically, American diplomats had quietly discouraged the pope from sending an emissary to the White House on similar grounds, saying that the dispute is not between Hussein and Bush, but between Hussein and the United Nations. Thus the Americans and the more anti-American wing in the Vatican found themselves on the same page).

The majority view within the Vatican, however, was that a direct personal appeal to Bush was worth the risk, and not because they believe it is likely to change the president’s mind. Privately, senior Vatican officials have told reporters that while they may hope for a miracle, realistically they regard war as a foregone conclusion.

The Vatican’s aim, therefore, is less to change the U.S. position than to shape public opinion in the Islamic world.

“I see the visit as significant in shaping the understanding of well-informed Muslims and policymakers and of confirming the perception of many that it’s not an issue of Christianity versus Islam,” said Jesuit Fr. Tom Michel, one of the Catholic church’s leading experts on Islam and a former Vatican official.

“At the popular level, many Muslims will probably continue to see an eventual war as a Christian attack on Islam and Islamic peoples,” Michel said.

Fear of a potential eruption in Christian/Islamic relations was at the heart of a Feb. 23-24 meeting of a joint committee between the Vatican and Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar institute, widely considered the Vatican of the Islamic world. The Vatican was represented by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

“War is a proof that humanity has failed,” its concluding statement read. “It brings about enormous loss of human life, great damage to the basic structures of human livelihood and the environment, displacement of large populations, and further political instability.

“In the present circumstances there is the added factor of increased tension between Muslims and Christians on account of the mistaken identification of some Western powers with Christianity, and of Iraq with Islam.”

The statement suggested the Vatican’s full-court diplomatic press, which has included recent papal tête-à-têtes with Germany’s Joschka Fischer, Iraq’s Tariq Aziz, England’s Tony Blair, Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar and Mohammad Reza Khatami of the Iranian parliament, has borne some fruit in shaping Islamic opinion.

“The Muslim members of the committee welcomed the clear policy and strenuous efforts of His Holiness Pope John Paul II in favor of peace,” it said.

In the Arab world, the most sizeable Christian community is in Egypt, which has 10 million to 12 million Copts. About 1.5 million Christians reside in Lebanon, with the largest group being the Maronites, an Eastern church that has always been loyal to Rome. There are perhaps 1 million Christians in Iraq, with large concentrations in the Kurdish zone. There are some 1.2 million Christians in Syria, including Aramaics, Armenians, Melkites and Orthodox. There are small but significant Christian communities in Iran, Jordan, Israel; Turkey and Algeria also have small Christian communities.

The Vatican has long insisted that these communities have a “special mission” to keep the faith alive in the land of Christianity’s birth.

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

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 2003