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Threat of War

Vatican: War threatens U.N.’s status

New York

In the wake of Cardinal Pio Laghi’s March 5 mission to President Bush, the Vatican is continuing its campaign against a war in Iraq, insisting at a minimum that any use of force must have explicit United Nations approval.

A related aim of the Vatican’s antiwar drive is to convince Muslims that if war comes, it is not an anti-Islamic crusade on the part of Christianity. On that front, Vatican sources were encouraged that before the Security Council March 7, both the Syrian foreign minister and the Iraqi ambassador thanked Pope John Paul II for his appeals on behalf of peace.

Despite media reports to the contrary, however, senior Vatican sources tell NCR there is no Vatican plan for Saddam Hussein to go into exile in a last-ditch move to avoid war. A report in the Glasgow Sunday Herald March 9 suggested the existence of such a plan, put forward by Saudi Arabia and backed by the Vatican.

“There is no Vatican plan,” a senior papal aide told NCR March 11. “There have been informal conversations at the U.N. about various possibilities, and we have indicated we would be willing to help in any way we can. But we are not proposing anything.”

Joaquín Navarro-Valls, head of the Vatican press office, called the report “completely baseless” March 11.

Over the weekend, Pope John Paul II continued his antiwar drumbeat.

“The choice between peace and war,” the pope said in his March 9 Angelus address, “is also a choice between good and evil that calls all Christians, especially in this Lenten period, to reject the temptations of Satan, as Jesus did in the desert.”

The pope’s reception of a string of VIPs in the diplomacy surrounding war in Iraq, including Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain, Jose Maria Aznar of Spain and Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, has been interrupted this week to create space for the annual Lenten retreat for the papal household.

The pope’s ongoing appeals for peace notwithstanding, Vatican officials say they believe the decision to go to war is all but a foregone conclusion on the part of the Bush administration.

“We could avoid a war fairly easily,” one aide said. “But based on the briefings we have received from the State Department, it seems this is a decision that has already been made.”

Given that reality, a secondary aim of Vatican diplomacy has become to at least ensure that if the conflict happens, it does so with the backing of the United Nations, so as to preserve the framework of international law.

Laghi emphasized the U.N. role in his comments after the meeting with Bush.

“A decision regarding the use of military force can only be taken within the framework of the United Nations,” he said, “but always taking into account the grave consequences of such an armed conflict: the suffering of the people of Iraq and those involved in the military operation, a further instability in the region and a new gulf between Islam and Christianity.”

As a sign of this commitment to working through the United Nations, Laghi visited U.N. headquarters in New York March 7, after his meeting with Bush, and sat in on part of that day’s Security Council discussion.

In an interview with the Misna news agency, Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, warned that a strike without explicit U.N. authorization could be a near-fatal blow to the body’s prestige.

“If, notwithstanding the lack of sufficient votes or the veto, war were to come all the same, the U.N. would suffer such a humiliating defeat that I don’t know if it would be able to recover,” Martino said. “In fact, it would end the scope for which the United Nations was created: the maintenance of peace and development.”

A senior Vatican official explained to NCR March 11 that in the view of the Holy See, the real issue in this conflict is whether the decision is made unilaterally or multilaterally. The official cited comments by Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s foreign minister, in early March to all the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See.

“No rule of international law authorizes one or more states to resort unilaterally to the use of force in order to change a regime or the form of government of another state because, for example, it is considered to possess weapons of mass destruction,” Tauran said. “Only, only the Security Council can make this decision.”

The Vatican’s commitment to multilateralism is based in part, the senior Vatican official said, on a conviction that it is the best way to ensure that the strong do not simply impose their will on the weak.

“Today it’s a matter of choosing between the law of force or the force of law,” as Tauran put the point in his comments to the ambassadors.

In part, however, the Holy See also supports multilateralism as an antidote to the rising influence of non-state actors in the United Nations system, especially corporations and large, well-funded nongovernmental organizations that often promote agendas, especially on issues of the family and sexuality, with which the Vatican disagrees.

A truly multilateral U.N. system, in which the smaller and less powerful states nevertheless are real partners in decision-making, would be more “democratic,” the Vatican official said, and less susceptible to manipulation by special interest groups.

Concerning Islamic public opinion, Vatican officials expressed satisfaction with the March 7 comments of Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shar’a and Iraqi Ambassador Muhammad al-Duri before the Security Council.

“Muslims and Arabs must highly value the recurrent calls for peace and for averting war made by all the leaders of the churches of the world over the past months,” al-Shar’a said. “These calls were crowned by a letter from the envoy of His Holiness the Pope to the U.S. president two days ago, explicitly stating that war on Iraq is illegitimate and unjust.”

Al-Duri spoke in similar tones.

“I should not forget here to praise the efforts exerted by churches throughout the world. In particular I refer to His Holiness the Pope, who has stressed peace and averting war on Iraq, which, he said, lacks any moral or legitimate basis,” al-Duri said.

The Vatican has long been concerned that if war is seen by Muslims as a Western assault on Islam, Christian minorities in the Islamic world might become targets. In this regard, a Vatican official said he found these comments “encouraging,” but he wondered whether they would filter down to the Islamic street.

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

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003