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Bank’s links to arms trade provoke boycott

Despite Pope John Paul II’s commitment to promoting peace, one of his recent gestures has triggered charges from Catholic missionaries that the Vatican is unwittingly complicit in the global arms trade.

The accusation rose in connection to the pope’s call for a day of fasting on Dec. 14 to mark the end of Ramadan.

In proposing the fast, John Paul suggested that participants set aside the money they would have spent on food and donate it to the poor. The Vatican’s office for charitable work, Cor Unum, created a bank account at the Bank of Rome, one of Italy’s largest financial institutions, to receive donations.

The pope said he would distribute proceeds to poor people at Christmas. The idea was sufficiently important to Vatican officials that they installed a special popup window on the Vatican Web site giving details.

The respected missionary journal Missione Oggi, however, called for a boycott of the account on the grounds that the Bank of Rome is a major player in the arms market. The journal, published by the Xaverian Missionaries, charged that the Bank of Rome financed $106 million worth of arms deals in 2000, earning $8 million in transaction fees.

In response to a request for comment from NCR, a Bank of Rome spokesperson said Dec. 12 that the figures cited by the missionaries “may be correct,” but insisted that the bank “does not finance arms, but companies.”

“What those companies produce is their business,” the spokesperson said. “For example, we lend money to metallurgical firms. If they make a piece of steel that ends up in a pistol, that’s not our decision.”

The spokesperson said the bank respects the missionaries’ concern, but considers it “misdirected.”

The Xaverians called on Cor Unum to open an account at the Popular Ethical Bank of Rome, which has policies against involvement in arms traffic.

One Vatican official told NCR that the boycott seemed unrealistic, given that most banks are engaged in at least some kind of ethically debatable commerce. Another, however, said that he understood the motivation. If you want to change corporate behavior, he said, “You have to hit them in the wallet.”

“As NCR went to press, the Vatican was still soliciting donations for the account. The Dec. 13 issue of L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, published an appeal for contributions on its front page.”

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2001