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Criticism of war on terror dominates interfaith meeting

Palermo, Italy

If there’s a stock criticism of the summit of world religious leaders hosted each year by Sant’Egidio, a lay Catholic movement famed for conflict resolution and promotion of human rights, it’s usually that everyone is too polite. The hundreds of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Shintoists and others who show up, unflappably committed to dialogue, often seem to have more in common with each other than with hardliners in their own traditions.

So the strong discontent with post-Sept. 11 American foreign policy voiced at this year’s summit was especially striking. Good manners, it appears, stop where the “war on terror” is concerned.

Also striking was the fact that some of the criticism, especially on a possible war with Iraq, came from Vatican officials who in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 seemed more tolerant of America’s use of force.

A characteristic scene unfolded at a packed Sept. 2 session titled “After Sept. 11: Is a Conflict of Civilizations Inevitable?” During the question period, Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Ramzi Garmo of Tehran, Iran, threw down a gauntlet.

“If Sept. 11 had happened anywhere else, would it have had the same impact?” Garmo asked. “Take Iraq as an example. Hundreds of thousands have died because one very powerful nation wants the embargo to continue. What is the difference between Iraqi children and the victims in New York? Is American blood worth more than blood in other countries?”

Garmo drew strong applause.

Later, in an interview with NCR, he added: “On Sept. 11, planes became bombs in New York, and we call this terrorism. In Iraq, in Afghanistan, planes bring bombs upon innocent people. This is not terrorism?”

The Sant’Egidio meeting, titled overall “Religion and Cultures: Between Conflict and Dialogue,” took place Sept. 1-3. It brought together some 400 religious leaders, including 12 cardinals and 30 bishops and abbots, 18 representatives of Orthodoxy, 18 Protestants, 9 representatives of Judaism, 28 Muslims, 13 adherents of Asian religions (from India, Japan, Singapore and Sri Lanka), plus 57 representatives of international organizations and 19 diplomats.

To be sure, participants emphasized that rights and wrongs exist on all sides, and that nothing can justify terrorism. Moreover, some degree of anti-American posturing was to be expected, in part from religious leaders representing countries where authoritarian regimes back home were watching, in part from European leftists who gravitate to Sant’Egidio, for whom anti-Americanism is often an automatic response.

It was nonetheless clear that American policy choices have stirred passions.

“The events that occurred in New York and Washington, although horrible, are not a reason for violating the safety of other nations or communities,” said Ayatollah Mohamed Ali Taskhiri of Iran. “Such atrocities as those exerted by the U.S. administration in Afghanistan, whose people were the victims of the Taliban regime, are not reasonable.”

The U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson, had a chance to deliver a strong defense of American policy in a panel on reconciliation Sept. 3. Nicholson presented President George Bush’s post-Sept. 11 policy as a model “of how justice and reconciliation can conquer vengeance and anger.”

“The president did not call for revenge or incite people to hatred,” Nicholson said. “He reminded Americans that goodness, remembrance and love have no end.” Then, Nicholson said, Bush built a “mighty coalition” of 174 nations to share military campaigns, law-enforcement efforts and humanitarian initiatives to combat terrorism.

Citing Bosnia and Kosovo, Sudan, the India/Pakistan conflict, and Korea as examples of recent American successes in efforts to promote peace, Nicholson said the United States has a “complete toolbox” of military, political and economic instruments.

To judge from this gathering, however, there seems doubt in some quarters about the uses to which those tools are being put.

One jarring illustration, at least for American sensibilities, came from Bernard Koucher, a French physician who was among the founders of Doctors Without Borders, and who later served as a U.N. special representative in Kosovo. Koucher said that in some neighborhoods of Paris teeming with immigrants from northern Africa, Osama bin Laden today is a revolutionary superstar on a par with Che Guevara. T-shirts and posters are sold with his likeness.

In a similar vein, Italian journalist Gianni Riotta pointed out that books purporting to prove that the attack on the Twin Towers was a CIA plot are selling well in Europe and the Arab world. “The United States should ask why people are prepared to believe this sort of thing,” he said.

Mehmet Aydin, a Turkish theologian trained in England, said that one cannot reject bin Laden’s rhetoric simply because “an evil person said it.”

Aydin cited three points: 1) the humiliation of Muslims by the West after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; 2) the Palestinian question, which Aydin said is in the “depth psychology” of young Muslims; and 3) the American presence on the Arabian peninsula, which contains the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.

Interestingly, several Vatican officials joined the criticism of American policy, especially on a strike against Iraq.

“Every part of the earth suspected of complicity in terrorism has been placed under threat. Iraq too now finds itself on the waiting list. The members of Al Qaeda are pursued everywhere. Despite it all, bin Laden can’t be found, and Al Qaeda has not yet been reduced to silence,” said Cardinal Ignatius Moussa I Daoud, [a Syrian] who heads the Congregation for Oriental Churches.

“Can peace really be established using war to stop war, violence to stop violence, demanding the enemy surrender arms by using arms?” Daoud asked, contrasting Bush’s “war on terrorism” with John Paul II’s appeal for a culture of peace, including attention to the causes of violence.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, apostolic nuncio of the Holy See to the United Nations, was critical of the way U.S. religious leaders responded to the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Instead of ‘Holy God We Bless Thy Name,’ many were singing ‘God Bless America,’ ” Martin said. “We can’t allow other things to slip into our message.”

Several voiced concern about an attack on Iraq.

“More than ever today, there’s nothing that can be resolved in the Middle East with a war,” said French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a longtime Vatican official who today functions as the pope’s informal diplomatic troubleshooter. German Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s top ecumenical official, said there are neither “the motives nor the proof” that would justify war.

All of this seemed in some contrast with the position taken by Vatican spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls days after the Sept. 11 attacks, when he seemed to support strikes against regimes considered sponsors of terror.

Other religious leaders, even some obviously repelled by Saddam Hussein, were also skeptical.

Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, cited two nagging doubts.

“First, is this really a means of resolving tensions, or is it about saving face for the failures of the first Bush administration?” Luzzatto asked in an interview with NCR. “Second, there is no willingness in the Arab world to mobilize against Iraq. I wonder if an attack would do more damage than any benefits it might gain.”

It fell to an American, David Smock of the government-funded United States Institute of Peace in Washington, to try to extract a moral from the story. Smock, who said he was speaking personally rather than on behalf of his agency, worried that the United States has missed the lessons of Sept. 11.

“We experienced what it’s like to be a victim but we have not translated that into understanding of what victimization is like in other parts of the world,” Smock said. “The philosophy of isolationism and unilateralism, the atmosphere of expanding conflict are troubling. There is an unwillingness to understand the sources of hatred.”

During the session with Nicholson, a Muslim woman said she would like to love the United States, but many of its policies -- from its lead role in the arms trade to its refusal to join international agreements on the environment and a new criminal court -- hold her back.

Addressing her, Nicholson said: “You would like to love the United States? My advice is, go ahead!”

The ambassador delivered the invitation with verve, but in the end, it was unclear whether his questioner or others like her gathered in Palermo were inclined to accept.

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

Related Web site

Community of Sant’Egidio

National Catholic Reporter, September 13, 2002 [corrected 09/20/2002]