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Mixed messages on force abound during papal trip

Astana, Kazakhstan, and Yerevan, Armenia

As Pope John Paul II began a late September journey to central Asia, a region seemingly destined to form the front line of America’s new war against terrorism, one towering question loomed: What would be said about the use of force?

Twenty-four hours into the trip, we had an answer.

Then 24 hours later, we had another.

By the time John Paul boarded an Armenia Airlines jet to go back to Rome, Catholic leaders seemed to be groping toward yet a third.

Perhaps the new kind of war American officials are now describing demands new ethical thinking, and the Vatican has simply not had time to craft a clear response. Perhaps, too, the reality of an aging pontiff with a limited capacity to enter into the details of policy questions breeds a certain ambiguity as subordinates attempt to fill the void.

In any case, the bottom line is that John Paul’s Sept. 22-27 visit to Kazakhstan and Armenia, the 95th foreign journey of his pontificate, offered a decidedly mixed message about how to respond to the terrorist threat.

John Paul led off with what seemed a ringing anti-war plea. “We must not let what has happened lead to a deepening of divisions,” he said at the end of a Mass in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, Sept. 23.

Though he celebrated the Mass in Russian, the pope added these last-minute remarks in English. A Vatican official told reporters that John Paul had penned the addition himself, a few hours after reading President George W. Bush’s speech to the U.S. Congress “a couple of times,” and after talking to advisers.

“I wish to make an earnest call to everyone, Christians and followers of other religions, that we work together to build a world without violence, a world that loves life and grows in justice and solidarity,” the pope said.

John Paul prayed that “the supreme good of peace may reign in the world.”

News agencies reported that the pope was implicitly criticizing the idea of military strikes in response to the terrorist attacks.

Spokesperson speaks out

The next day, on Sept. 24, papal spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls gave an exclusive interview to Reuters that quickly changed that impression.

Navarro-Valls, choosing his words with care, said the Vatican “would understand” if Bush were to use force to protect the United States from terrorist threats. The pope is not a pacifist, Navarro-Valls said, and the church recognizes a right to self-defense.

“It is certain that, if someone has done great harm to society and there is a danger that if he remains free he may be able to do it again, you have the right to apply self-defense for the society which you lead, even though the means you choose may be aggressive,” Navarro-Valls said.

“Sometimes self-defense implies an action which may lead to the death of a person,” he added.

Navarro-Valls did not, strictly speaking, repeal anything the pope had said. John Paul himself took a strong line against “hatred, fanaticism and terrorism” in a Sept. 24 address, rejecting attempts to make God “the hostage of human ambitions.”

Still, the impression of a change in emphasis, a kind of correction of the pope’s message, was hard to avoid.

On Sept. 23, John Paul had said, “With all my heart, I beg God to keep the world in peace.” Navarro-Valls seemed to stop just short of calling that kind of thinking naive: “In the name of peace, even some horrible injustices may be carried out,” he said.

When pressed, Navarro-Valls said he had done no more than restate the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The inconsistency between Navarro-Valls and his boss put media outlets in the odd position of deciding whether to give more weight to the words of the pope or his spokesperson. Vatican Radio, for one, solved the problem by ignoring Navarro-Valls. “What the pope says goes” were the marching orders relayed to field personnel.

The wider world, however, may find it more difficult to escape the impact of the Navarro-Valls interview. CNN broke into programming to report Navarro’s comments, briefly headlining them as a Vatican “green light” for an attack on terrorism.

(Navarro-Valls gave an interview to Spanish television Sept. 27 reiterating his comments to Reuters but saying it was a mistake to call them a “green light” for an attack. “It’s not a matter of an attack, but of active prevention against a threat that has already manifested itself in the horror of a few weeks ago,” he said.)

On Sept. 25, as John Paul arrived in Yerevan, Armenia, reverberations from the apparent discrepancies between the messages from the pope and Navarro-Valls were still being felt.

Reporters turned for help to members of the pope’s retinue, which included Cardinals Crescenzio Sepe, Walter Kasper, and Moussa I Daoud and Archbishop Luigi Sandri. Speaking on background, one of the cardinals made two points. The first is that there must not be a “bloodbath” in Afghanistan, the second that a “surgical strike” will probably be necessary. Otherwise, “we become hostages of the terrorists.”

Repulsed by NATO bombing

Yet how the Vatican will distinguish a “bloodbath” from a “surgical strike” remains unclear. Hence even this third stab at an answer left something to be desired.

One parallel is the Vatican response to the violence in Kosovo in the later 1990s. The pope originally supported intervention by the international community. Yet he was repulsed by the means chosen to attack the Serbs, and in April 1999, at the peak of NATO bombing, he denounced both sides: “Enough of this cruel shedding of human blood!”

The confusion on this trip suggests Vatican strategists will have to think fast if they want to contribute anything useful to the global discussion this time around. The pope will undoubtedly continue to call for peace, but many church officials fear a blanket pacifist stance is unrealistic, given the prospect of further terrorist violence.

Talk about war and peace had a special resonance in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic whose southern border is a scant 180 miles from Afghanistan, the reputed hideout of Osama bin Laden.

John Paul himself was, according to U.S. intelligence reports, a target of the bin Laden network six years ago. Officials arrested a man with links to bin Laden in Manila in January 1995, who was allegedly planning an assassination attempt.

The pope and his advisers used his trip to Kazakhstan to urge Christians and Muslims not to convert the current world crisis into a larger holy war.

“The present situation cannot be interpreted as a conflict between Islam and Christianity, or between Islam and the Western world,” Navarro-Valls said at one point. “That would be dangerous and does not reflect reality.”

John Paul repeatedly pointed to Kazakhstan, whose vast steppes could contain the entire landmass of the European Union, as an example of how Christians and Muslims can live in peace.

Of the country’s 15 million people, approximately 47 percent are Muslim and 44 percent Christian (mostly Russian Orthodox; Catholics number a mere 180,000). The vast majority of the Muslims are ethnic Kazaks, while most Christians are Russians, Germans, Ukranians or Poles.

Despite the split, Kazakhstan has virtually no history of religious or ethnic conflict.

In part, this is because of the impact of 70 years of official Soviet atheism, which made it difficult for fundamentalism to take root. In part, too, Islam here has been shaped by the more moderate Sunni tradition.

Christians came as deportees

The harmony also reflects the fact that most Western Christians came to Kazakhstan not as colonizers but as deportees, driven from their homes in Ukraine or Poland by the Soviets or the Nazis. Hence there is a traditional “solidarity of the gulag.”

“When the Poles and the Germans were deported here, the Kazaks helped them,” Bishop Henry Howaniec, apostolic administrator of Almaty, Kazakhstan, told NCR. Howaniec is a Franciscan from Chicago.

“They gave them bread, they found them homes, they even helped them build churches. People remember that,” he said.

John Paul’s recent efforts to reach out to Muslims also appeared to have borne fruit, above all his May 5 visit to a mosque in Damascus. “I saw on television that he was the first pope to visit a mosque, and that made me feel better about [his] coming here,” 17-year-old Tuleghen Tansyupueyev, a Kazak Muslim who attended the Sept. 23 papal Mass, told NCR.

In Armenia, where the vast majority of the population adheres to the Armenian Apostolic church, the country’s tragic 20th-century experience colors the Christian-Muslim relationship. Some 1.5 million Armenians died between 1915-16, and 1922-23 in conflict with Turkey. It is an event that Armenians remember as genocide.

On Sept. 26, John Paul visited a memorial to the victims on a hill overlooking Yerevan, Armenia, describing himself as “appalled by the terrible violence done to the Armenian people.”

Under the weight of that history, some Armenians are leery of rapprochement with Islam, even if the Turks involved in the violence were largely not motivated by religious considerations. One Armenian priest, who did not give his name, told a reporter that when the pope came to the genocide memorial, “He will see what Islam is.”

Yet others drew different conclusions.

“If Muslims in Syria hadn’t opened their doors to us, there wouldn’t be a single Armenian alive today,” said Anton Totonjian, pastor of an Armenian Catholic parish in Sydney, Australia. He traveled to Yerevan to take part in the pope’s visit.

Totonjian, a Christian priest, was emphatic: “It’s thanks to Muslims that we continue at all,” he said.

It’s hard to imagine a better basis for dialogue than that.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2001