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Issue Date:  April 28, 2006

U.S. ambassador: No Vatican alarm over Iran


Despite its track record of opposition to “preemptive war,” the Vatican has not yet expressed alarm over reports of American plans for military action to block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, according to the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

Ambassador Francis Rooney made it clear, however, that he thinks the Vatican would take a dim view of such a conflict.

“I think we all agree that a war in Iran would be a horrible thing,” Rooney said in an exclusive April 13 interview with NCR.

Bush administration officials have described reports of planned strikes in Iran as “wild speculation.”

Most analysts believe that if the United States were to show serious signs of impending military action, the Vatican would urge restraint, as it did in the buildup to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Though Pope Benedict XVI has not commented on the subject, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in September 2002 that “the concept of preemptive war does not appear in the catechism.”

Asked if the Vatican had made an official appeal to the United States not to use force against Iran, Rooney said “No,” adding, “At this point, there’s not much to talk about.” The suggestion was that talk of strikes is premature.

Rooney said, however, that the Vatican backs diplomatic efforts, saying it has been “clearly supportive of all the nations working to avoid a nuclear-armed Iran.”

During past disputes over Iran’s nuclear program, Pope John Paul II and senior Vatican officials repeatedly urged Iranian officials to back down.

In February 2004, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican’s foreign minister, warned Iranian diplomats that “arming oneself at all costs multiplies the causes of conflicts, and increases the risks of their spreading.”

In his message for the Vatican’s World Day of Peace Jan. 1, Pope Benedict XVI seemed to make an indirect reference to Iran, chiding governments “planning to acquire” nuclear weapons.

Rooney welcomed those statements.

“We’ve encouraged [the Vatican] to be strong, to continue to speak up, because that shows Iran the whole world is united against them having nuclear weapons and threatening their neighbors,” Rooney said.

In October, the Vatican also condemned remarks by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in effect calling for the state of Israel to be “wiped off the map.” At the time, papal spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls termed the comments “serious and unacceptable.”

Rooney, a Catholic with a business background, presented his credentials as the seventh American ambassador to the Holy See last November.

Rooney described what he sees as a “clearer” line from the Vatican under Benedict XVI in comparison with his predecessor, John Paul II, on issues such as terrorism and religious freedom, especially in Islamic nations.

“I think they’ve hardened up,” he said. “I think they’ve gotten clearer. They’re focusing on this reciprocity doctrine,” he said, referring to Vatican insistence that since Muslim minorities in Europe reap the benefits of religious freedom, Christian minorities in majority Muslim states should receive the same treatment.

“I think the evolving consensus that the church needs to be clear and strong, that religious freedom is a two-way street, is unimpeachable,” Rooney said. “When you apply that principle, for example, for Saudi Arabia to say, ‘There can’t be any churches,’ is an issue. … You can’t have it two ways.”

Rooney said the topic of Islam also came up in Benedict XVI’s Feb. 9 meeting with First Lady Laura Bush.

“The Holy Father said … that he’s concerned about the radicalization of Islam in countries in which it has not heretofore been a radical religion,” Rooney said.

On other matters, Rooney said he believes Pope Benedict XVI has a “keen understanding” and fondness for the United States, including “our faith, our church attendance and our tradition of religious freedom.”

In his six months on the job, Rooney said, he’s “debunked the myth” of anti-Americanism in the Vatican.

“These guys really are thankful for what we’re doing,” he said.

In a topic with relevance for American politics, Rooney said he and Pope Benedict discussed immigration policies during their first meeting last November. Benedict, Rooney said, expressed the hope that the United States would continue to welcome immigrants, drawing on what the pope called the country’s “great tradition of assimilation.”

Rooney also said he met Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles during the consistory for the creation of new cardinals in Rome in March, and encouraged him to continue to speak out on immigration issues.

National Catholic Reporter, April 28, 2006

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