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Gerard O’ConnellMarch 26, 2024
Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, Vatican foreign minister, speaks during a news conference at the Vatican Jan. 18, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Does the Holy See think Israel is conducting a genocide in Gaza? Did Pope Francis call on Ukraine to surrender when he referred to “raising the white flag” in an interview with Swiss Radio Télévision Suisse in February? Does the Holy See intend to renew the provisional agreement with China on the nomination of bishops?

These are some of the questions that Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States and International Organizations—commonly known as its foreign minister—responded to in this exclusive interview with America’s Vatican correspondent on the morning of March 25 in the Secretariat of State.

Born in Liverpool, England, in 1954, Archbishop Gallagher entered the Holy See’s diplomatic service in 1984 and subsequently served in its diplomatic missions in Tanzania, Uruguay, the Philippines and the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, before serving as nuncio in Burundi, Guatemala and Australia. Pope Francis appointed him Secretary for Relations with States in November 2014.

You attended the Munich Security Conference in February, which discussed the major security issues facing the world today. What conclusions did you bring away from it?

First, there was a palpable anxiety about the international situation and security, where the world is going, where society is going. There were great concerns about Ukraine and Gaza. There was, at the same time, an effort to see the silver lining because there is a danger that we are in a “lose-lose” situation. There is no doubt about it: There is a different, more concerned climate within the international community at this point.

Was the greatest concern at the Munich conference for Ukraine or Gaza?

I think the concern is equally divided. But I think the extreme humanitarian situation, the gravity of the humanitarian situation in Gaza was very evident in the concerns of people. Unfortunately, [the war in] Ukraine has been going on for a long time, and people were aware of the undesirable danger of resignation toward the situation of a conflict that does not seem to have an end in sight.

Israel-Palestine

Pope Francis has repeatedly called for a ceasefire in Gaza, the release of hostages, the provision of humanitarian aid and the respect of international law. How do you read Israel’s refusal to stop the bombing of Gaza and to open the doors for humanitarian aid?

I suppose the perception of the threat posed to Israel by Hamas is very different in Israel than it is to the international community. That is why they are so uncompromising in their stance and in the policies they are pursuing. The Oct. 7 [attack] was such a traumatic experience for Israelis that they feel this is the only choice they have right now. As the Holy See, we disagree on the military reaction. As you say, the Holy Father has called for a ceasefire and the delivery of humanitarian aid. Obviously, Israel very much agrees with the Holy Father’s appeals for the release of the hostages, which have been constant.

The United States has repeatedly used its veto at the U.N. Security Council to protect Israel. Since Oct. 7 it has used it three times to block resolutions calling for a ceasefire. How do you interpret that kind of politics?

The close defense alignment of the United States and Israel is very much a pillar of both their policies, and therefore it is extremely difficult for them to modify their policy. Therefore, I think, the position of the United States is to continue to insist on the modification of Israel’s policy.

Many claim that what is happening in Gaza is genocide or close to genocide. How does the Holy See read it?

It is not for the Holy See to determine what is a genocidal situation. There are international organizations that have that responsibility, and I am sure they will assume that responsibility in due course.

I personally feel that one cannot use the noun “genocide” because that is such a definitive judgment, which has a precise meaning in international law. Nevertheless, given the statistics, the suffering, the 32,000 dead, according to certain estimates—many more injured and millions of people displaced—I think many are using the adjective “genocidal” as characteristic of that. In any case, we have to keep hammering away and try to bring an end to this. Our concern is seeing an end to the suffering and to the conflict, an end to the killing, and therefore, I think it is not useful for us to be the ones issuing a judgment at this point.

Many say Israel is carrying out collective punishment and the use of starvation as a weapon of war against the people of Gaza. Would it be correct to say that the Holy See considers this a violation of international law and a crime against humanity?

The pope and the Holy See have denounced these things and the total insufficiency of humanitarian aid getting in, not to mention the reports of the imminent danger of famine, [which are] profoundly concerning.

Does the Holy See agree with the defunding of UNRWA as proposed by Israel and now being carried out by several countries, including the United States?[In January, the United Nations fired 12 of its employees who were accused by Israel of taking part in the Oct. 7 massacre.]

No! The Holy See takes seriously the allegations that have been made against UNRWA. At the same time, however, we do see UNRWA as making a crucial contribution at this time, and not just in Gaza, but also in four or five countries in the Middle East where Palestinians are. We have encouraged some of the countries that have withdrawn their funding to rethink that. We are very supportive of what UNRWA is doing. We accept that it would be extremely difficult to substitute that. When the investigations [into UNRWA’s connections to Hamas] are finished, when decisions are made, there are going to be changes. But they are already making changes, and that will continue.

You visited Jordan recently. You met the bishops and representatives of the churches in the region; you met the king of Jordan, the Jordanian foreign minister and the head of UNRWA. What did you take away from all those meetings?

I think in the Jordanian context—and remember that Jordan and Egypt were the two Middle Eastern countries that came to agreements with Israel over the years—I came away with the impression that there was deep sadness and disappointment that the situation has so deteriorated in their relations with Israel. This is a situation that has resulted from the lack of progress over the past decades in trying to bring a solution to the Palestinian question.

Do you still see the two-state solution as the way ahead to peace between Israelis and Palestinians?

Yes. It may be an indication, but if you go back a few years, the Holy See was still talking about the two-state solution when a lot of people discarded it and thought it was impossible. Now, maybe that is a little bit of a silver lining to a very dark situation in that people are at least now beginning to talk about it once again, and some people do believe that this is the only way forward.

But we do not go into the question of Jerusalem and whose capital it should be. We believe that as the religious capital of the three great monotheistic religions, that there should be a special status for Jerusalem, which should be ensured through some form of international guarantees.

Do you think Israel by its present intransigence in Gaza is undermining its own security? At the end of the day, it is living in an Arab region.

I think that’s a danger, undoubtedly. But one cannot help feeling that the objectives that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set out at the beginning [of the war]—namely the destruction of Hamas, the disabling of Hamas so that it would never present a threat to Israel again—well obviously, that may be partially obtained. But so great is the suffering of the Palestinian people, so many are the victims, innocent victims, one cannot help feeling that this is preparing a future generation of terrorists that will pose a threat to the future of Israel.

Ukraine

Pope Francis has called for negotiations to end the war in Ukraine. Some have interpreted his suggestion that Ukraine raise “the white flag of negotiations” as a call to surrender, Russia has applauded this, but the Vatican has said this was not true. Could you explain [Pope Francis’] position? Is he asking Ukraine to raise the white flag to surrender?

No! He is not. There is no question of his asking Ukraine to surrender. It is a question of his concern for Ukraine and his understanding of the situation Ukraine finds itself in. After all, the image of the white flag was something that was introduced by the Swiss journalist [in the interview with the pope]; they were talking about the symbolism of white. I think for the pope, it was more about the white flag in terms of invoking protection on a process of negotiations, which in the end must come. All wars end in some form of negotiation.

He is not saying that Ukraine should surrender, but he is saying that at some point, one has to find the courage to move forward and invoke the protection to negotiate. And that is also the position of the Holy See, because Russia has very often said that it is willing to negotiate.

But for us, Russia does not establish the conditions that are necessary. The conditions that are necessary, which are in the power of Russia, are to stop the attacks, to stop the missiles. That is what Russia has to do!

When I interviewed you more than a year ago (July 2022), you said the Holy See calls for a “just peace” in Ukraine, and when I asked what a “just peace” means, you explained that for the Holy See, it means “that Russia must withdraw from all Ukraine territories.” Is that still the position of the Holy See?

We still support the territorial integrity of Ukraine. We do not endorse that the boundaries of countries should be changed by force. So that remains our position. We consider that a just position, and that is our position toward Ukraine.

At the same time, we also recognize Ukraine’s right to make any steps that could make possible an agreement for a just peace, even regarding its territories. But this is not something that we can impose or expect of Ukraine. If Ukraine and its government want to do that, then that is entirely in their discretion.

What is the real state of the Holy See’s relation with Moscow at the higher levels? I ask this because I noticed that when Cardinal Matteo Zuppi went to Moscow as the pope’s envoy, he was received at a much lower governmental level than at any of the other three countries he went to, namely, Ukraine, the United States and China. It seems that while Russia makes nice public comments to the media about Pope Francis, in practice, it stays at a distance from him.

Russia has consistently said that they believed that that was the right level for an envoy of the Holy Father to be received—namely, by somebody who was a presidential advisor. That we accept, but we would like to think that in the future, if Cardinal Zuppi were to return to Moscow, he might be received at a higher level. We think that would be appropriate.

Is there a possibility that Cardinal Zuppi will return to Moscow?

I think the pope is willing to do whatever is necessary. If he believes that that would assist in bringing an end to the war and a just peace, I think he would, yes.

Is there any possibility that the pope would go to Moscow? I believe there is no invitation of any kind from Moscow.

Not that I am aware of, no. But, as you know, the pope has always said that he would go to the two capitals together, or that he would program two visits—to Moscow and to Kyiv.

China and Vietnam

The Holy See and China signed a provisional agreement regarding the nomination of bishops in the mainland in Beijing in September 2018. That agreement has now endured almost six years notwithstanding unilateral deviations by Beijing. My question: Will it be revised, renewed for another two years, or renewed permanently next October when it is due to end?

It will expire next October, and if we are to continue, then it will have to be renewed. I think that we still believe that the agreement is a useful means for the Holy See and the Chinese authorities to deal with the question of the appointment of bishops. We would like to see it working better, with more results, and we still believe that it is capable of improvement. Because of that, I do not think we are talking about any possibility of [terminating it]. Since we believe that improvements could and should be made, it does not seem appropriate to decide finally.

I understand that you want improvements on that provisional agreement, but I recall that before the Holy See signed the agreement, it wanted to discuss other questions, too, but the Chinese side always said we will deal with the other matters only after the signing of the agreement. As I understand it now, the Chinese have been very reluctant to address or move forward on the other issues. So far have we seen any movement or real development on the other issues?

No, because the agreement is to deal with the appointment of bishops, and that is what the dialogue is still about. Obviously, when the delegates meet, they talk about other aspects of the life of the church in China, but there are at the moment no significant negotiations on other issues.

So, the possibility of a Holy See office in Beijing is not on the table?

Well, we have always believed that this would be useful.

But there is no willingness or openness from their side on this question so far.

No.

Is there any movement by Beijing on the question of the underground bishops and communities?

We believe in talking about the normalization of the situation.

Is there any positive movement from the Beijing side on this matter?

We are dealing with what we are dealing with!

As for allowing the Chinese bishops to come freely to Rome and for the Vatican to be able to send its officials to China, is there any development here?

We are very happy that that has happened on a couple of occasions. We are hopeful that those bishops [who attended the October 2023 synod] may come back next October to the synod.

The same ones?

Since the October synod will be made up of the same members that attended the last synod, I assume the same [Chinese] ones will come, too. But they may not be, and I am sure if they say, “We will send two others,” that may also be acceptable to us.

Moreover, we should not forget that there [have] been good exchanges between the bishop of Hong Kong and bishops in the mainland. The fraternal visits are going on, though they are not huge in number. But some bishops are coming out and having more contacts, and we can only encourage that.

But you didn’t meet with your counterpart at the Munich conference as happened some years ago?

No, he did not ask, and I did not ask. You know, the Chinese want things to develop gradually and naturally, and so may want to move the dialogue onto a slightly higher level.

So is there a possibility that Cardinal Pietro Parolin could meet his counterpart at some stage?

There is always a possibility, but there is nothing concrete planned.

As for the pope meeting the Chinese president, is there any possibility of this happening?

Well, as you know, the pope says he is always willing to meet the president, but at the moment there’s no invitation. The Chinese would say, “The time is not right; the times are not mature.”

You are going to Vietnam in April. What’s necessary to bring about the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Vietnam?

It is a matter of establishing the political will to do that. We are very glad at the progress that has been made, and we have a resident papal representative in Hanoi. I think that our priority at the moment is to see that that works—that which is of benefit to the Catholic community, to the bishops and the faithful in Vietnam—and that the authorities get used to the fact of having somebody who is representing the Holy See there. I think that is our priority.

I understand that it is possible that the pope could go to Vietnam without diplomatic relations.

It would be somewhat unusual, but nothing should be ruled out.

I understand that the pope’s visit to Indonesia, Singapore, Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea has now been moved to early September.

Yes, that is my understanding.

And Vietnam could be added to that visit?

It could be.

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