Vatican Backs Efforts to Prevent Iraq War, Disarm Saddam
With diplomatic moves and moral encouragement, the Vatican backed international efforts in mid-February to prevent a new war in Iraq and promote the country’s peaceful disarmament. Meanwhile, Catholic leaders and organizations joined a growing antiwar movement that stretched across the globe and spilled onto the streets of major cities on every continent.
After sending a personal envoy to confer with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, Pope John Paul II met privately with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz at the Vatican on Feb. 14 and asked Iraq for “concrete commitments” to respect U.N. disarmament resolutions. The Vatican said the talks underscored “the danger of an armed intervention in Iraq, which would add further grave sufferings for those populations which are already tried by long years of embargo.”
Aziz, a Catholic of the Chaldean rite, also spoke with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, secretary of state, and Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s equivalent of foreign minister. The Vatican said Aziz assured the church leaders “of the Iraqi government’s willingness to cooperate with the international community, particularly in regard to disarmament.” Aziz said he told the pope that a Western-led war against Iraq would provoke negative reaction in the Arab Muslim world and “poison” Christian-Muslim relations.
The Vatican’s top official for interreligious dialogue agreed, warning that military action against Iraq risks being interpreted by the Muslim world as a Western war on Islam. In a Feb. 16 interview with Vatican Radio, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said an Iraqi war also might provoke retaliatory attacks against minority Christian communities in Muslim countries.
On Feb. 15, the papal envoy Cardinal Roger Etchegaray met with Saddam Hussein for an hour and a half and delivered a papal message to the Iraqi leader. Cardinal Etchegaray later said the talks covered “concrete issues,” but he would not elaborate. “I am convinced that Saddam Hussein wants to avoid war,” Cardinal Etchegaray told reporters in Baghdad. “He seems seriously aware of the responsibility he faces with regard to his people.” The cardinal said everything should be done to help end the international isolation of Iraq and the suffering of its people. He called war the “worst solution” to the Iraqi crisis.
According to Iraqi TV, Saddam Hussein told Cardinal Etchegaray that some Western powers “want to attack us only because we are Muslim.” The Iraqi leader denied Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. During his six-day visit to Iraq, Cardinal Etchegaray visited Catholic communities and presided over liturgies in Baghdad and the northern city of Mossul.
Vatican officials said that while the Christian minority in Iraq has constitutional protections, the 12-year economic embargo against the country and the prospects of a new war have led many Catholics to leave. In Baghdad, the number of Catholics has shrunk since 1991 to 175,000 from 500,000.
At the Vatican, the Iraqi crisis was on the pope’s mind throughout the week. In a meeting on Feb. 13 with Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni and other Jewish leaders in Rome, the pope said it was important for Christians and Jews to pray for peace at a time when “the dangerous rumblings of war can be heard.”
Pope John Paul II and Vatican officials met U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and held out hope for “effective solutions” that would spare Iraqi civilians further suffering. Even as the pope was meeting with Annan on Feb. 18, Vatican sources confirmed reports that British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a strong advocate of military action against Iraq, was scheduled to meet the pope on Feb. 22.
In the United States, the chairman of the bishops’ Committee on International Policy, Bishop John H. Ricard, of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., reiterated that a war against Iraq would be “difficult to justify” because of a lack of evidence that the country posed an imminent danger to the United States. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles said on Feb. 14 that pre-emptive use of force would create a dangerous precedent, and that a war may well have devastating effects on the civilian population. “War is not the solution,” Cardinal Mahony said. He said he was praying that world leaders would have the wisdom to “forge a new road to peace.”
French and Scottish bishops, meanwhile, joined the growing number of bishops’ conferences that have cautioned against a war on Iraq. The French bishops said on Feb. 10 that France’s citizens and political leaders did not support a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. “Admitting the legitimacy of waging ‘preventive wars’ against all the regimes which displease us and oppress their people would be to plunge the world into fire and blood,” said the permanent council of the bishops’ conference, headed by Archbishop Jean-Pierre Ricard.
The Scottish bishops said on Feb. 12 that they were concerned by perceptions that a war against Iraq was inevitable, despite the lack of evidence that would justify an invasion.
Legislation and Tales of Woe Invigorate Social Ministers
Welfare funding is in danger, while demand for services is up; a war may be looming; budgets are shrinking; terrorism threats grow more vivid by the day. To hear about these issues, more than 540 people traveled to Washington for the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering. The conference is co-sponsored by 15 national organizations ranging from Catholic Charities USA and various offices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to the National Catholic Partnership on Disability and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.
The gathering began on Feb. 7 with meetings of diocesan directors of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, built up to an afternoon of lobbying visits to Congress and concluded on Feb. 12 with a luncheon panel where political pundits put some of the week’s issues into perspective. In between, there were meetings of groups involved with criminal justice, rural life, environmental justice and higher education.
Workshop and plenary sessions included speakers on the topics of tax relief for low-income families, welfare reauthorization, the conflict with Iraq, global poverty, the labor movement, health care, AIDS and other global health concerns, nuclear morality and famine in Africa. Skills workshops addressed fund-raising, leadership development, interfaith social action and using Web sites for social justice. Speakers and homilists included several bishops, two U.S. senators and a member of the British Parliament, academics and policy makers, as well as many people who run diocesan or national social ministry programs.
Attendees said the annual gathering gives them a dose of energy for working in the church’s social mission, which they said can be an overwhelming task. “It’s kind of an energizer—to affirm that we can still make a difference,” one said.
The participants make a difference, pointed out John Carr, secretary of social development and world peace for the U.S.C.C.B., whose staff does the main organizing for the conference. In a talk in which he outlined many of the challenges facing social ministry, he also noted that many of the people in the room helped make the jubilee year campaign for debt relief a success in 2000. Grass-roots lobbying was key to persuading the governments of the United States and other nations to forgive billions of dollars of foreign debt that was strangling the economies of struggling nations, he reminded them.
“Even in these tough times we can make a difference,” Carr said. A refundable children’s tax credit, restoring food stamp eligibility for legal immigrants and expanding the state children’s health program were all previous subjects of annual lobbying for the conference participants, he said. All were eventually enacted.
Sacred Space, the Irish Jesuits’ online prayer site (www.sacredspace.ie), launched nine days of prayer for world peace on Feb. 23. Sacred Space has had almost six million visits since 1999 and is now translated into 15 languages, including Japanese, Catalan and Latvian. The site’s organizer, Alan McGuckian, S.J., said, “Many thousands of people pray at Sacred Space each day and the feedback from all over the world says that they want to be part of a world-wide prayer for peace.”
Bets are being taken on the next papal election at www.paddypower-.com, an Irish betting site that posts odds that range from 4-1 to 20-1 on 15 cardinals. The favorite is Francis Arinze (4-1) followed by Giacomo Biffi and Dionigi Tettamanzi (both 6-1). Joseph Ratzinger is 12-1 and Carlo Martini is 14-1.
The South African bishops said they were disappointed at President Mbeki’s treatment of the AIDS pandemic and the Zimbabwe crisis. According to U.N. figures, 20 percent of the adult population is H.I.V.-positive. The bishops’ conference urged the South African government to intervene in Zimbabwe, which the bishops said is on the brink of civil war with “increasing levels of organized state terror.”
Catholic colleges and universities should not be allowing campus productions of the “The Vagina Monologues,” a controversial play about female sexuality, said Patrick Reilly, the president of the Cardinal Newman Society. “This kind of vulgarity has no academic or social value to students at a Catholic college, and it’s spiritually destructive.” He criticized the 42 Catholic colleges where campus performances of the play were scheduled to be held in February and March.
The play, described as “a celebration of female sexuality in all its complexity and mystery,” features women who literally represent vaginas that speak out in a series of monologues. Early performances of the play were criticized for a positive portrayal of the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl by a 24-year-old woman, but those sections of the script have been revised for campus productions.