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Vatican will not support American war on Iraq


A growing chorus of Catholic bishops from around the world, including five senior Vatican officials, has spoken out against the possibility of an American-led military campaign against Iraq.

Among other things, the comments suggest that if the United States moves forward, it will likely do so without the moral support from the Vatican its offensive in Afghanistan enjoyed in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.

The most direct statement of Vatican thinking came in a Sept. 10 interview with Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, a Frenchman who is in effect the pope’s foreign minister, with the Italian Catholic newspaper L’Avvenire.

Tauran insisted that any action against Iraq “should happen within the framework of the United Nations.” He added that consideration must be given to the consequences for the civilian population of Iraq, as well as the repercussions for the countries of the region and for world stability.

Tauran’s bottom line, though diplomatically expressed, seemed negative.

“One can legitimately ask if the type of operation that is being considered is an adequate means for bringing true peace to maturity,” he said.

In a later interview on Vatican Radio, the host said a war with Iraq seemed probable. Tauran responded, “Let’s hope it is not probable, because it would be a defeat for all humanity.”

Four other Vatican officials spoke either directly or indirectly against the idea of war in Iraq at a Sept. 1-3 summit of religious leaders in Palermo, Italy, sponsored by the Sant’Egidio community. They were Cardinals Roger Etchegaray (French), Ignatius Moussa I Daoud (Syrian), and Walter Kasper (German), along with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin (Irish).

Etchegaray, who functions as an informal papal diplomatic troubleshooter, and who has long been critical of the United Nations sanctions against Iraq, said he was “happy to see growing opposition” in the international community. “The threat coming from Washington is something that is simply unthinkable. There is no war, least of all today and least of all in the Middle East, that can resolve something,” Etchegaray said.

Kasper, meanwhile, said there are neither “the motives nor the proof” to justify a war. Both men spoke in response to questions from reporters.

The criticism from Martin and Daoud was more indirect, and came in the context of prepared remarks on other topics.

Commenting on the response of the United States to the attacks of Sept. 11, Daoud said: “Every part of the earth suspected of complicity in terrorism has fallen under threat. Iraq now finds itself on the waiting list.

“Where will this campaign finish? Will it succeed in stabilizing an order of peace, preventing war with war, violence with violence, demanding the arms of the enemy through the use of arms?” Daoud asked. His conclusion seemed negative.

“In the end, the arms remain in the hands of a part of the world, and their presence expresses in itself an explosive situation,” he said.

Martin, the pope’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva, argued that a successful “war against terrorism” has to be focused on development and social justice. He made no direct reference to Iraq.

“The great weapon of the war will have to be that of trust and respect toward other people,” Martin said. “The war against terrorism will not be won with some ‘quick fix’ that resolves tensions for the moment, disregarding a sustainable future for all.”

A final comment, also indirect, came Sept. 7 from John Paul II himself in remarks to the new English ambassador to the Holy See, Kathryn Frances Colvin.

“As an essential part of its fight against terrorism, the international community is called to undertake new and creative political, diplomatic and economic initiatives aimed at relieving the scandalous situations of gross injustice, oppression and marginalization which continue to oppress countless members of the human family,” the pope said.

“History in fact shows that the recruitment of terrorists is more easily achieved in areas where human rights are trampled upon and where injustice is a part of daily life,” John Paul said.

Taken collectively, the comments seem to signal that the Vatican would oppose armed intervention in Iraq, especially if it is not sanctioned internationally. This would mark a turnaround from last September, when Vatican spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls, speaking during the pope’s trip to Kazakhstan, offered support for military action against the sources of terrorism.

“It is certain that, if someone has done great harm to society and there is danger he may be able to do it again, you have the right to apply self-defense for the society which you lead,” Navarro-Valls said on Sept. 24.

In an Oct. 12 interview with the French newspaper La Croix, Tauran had likewise defended U.S. action.

“We must recognize that Operation Enduring Freedom is a response to the terrorist acts of aggression against innocent civilians on Sept. 11,” Tauran said. “Today we all recognize that the American government, like any other government, has the right to legitimate defense, because it has a duty to guarantee the security of its citizens.”

The Vatican’s more dovish stance on Iraq seems to mirror sentiments expressed by a growing number of Catholic bishops worldwide.

On Sept. 5, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, head of the Catholic church in England, published an opinion piece in the London Times suggesting the proposed military action fails the tests for legitimate use of force set out in Catholic theology.

“I am convinced that the might of generous self-sacrifice, rather than the might of arms, is the only way to construct a more just and more peaceful world,” he wrote.

At the Sant’Egidio gathering, two other senior Catholic prelates expressed similar sentiments.

“We must assign criminals to international courts without subjecting entire populations to bombardments,” said Cardinal Etsou-Nvabi-Bamungwabi of Kinshasa in the Congo.

“Let’s hope that world public opinion will put more pressure on those hawks in America who want to have this war with Iraq for reasons that we don’t yet understand,” said Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Nigeria.

On Sept. 10, a group of seven Australian Catholic bishops joined 31 other church leaders in calling on Prime Minister John Howard to use his influence to try to dissuade the U.S. from an attack.

“It is a cause of deep distress that the threat of military action seriously devalues the lives of all people in countries such as Iraq, who are already suffering severely from harsh leadership and the economic impact of extreme sanctions and bombardments,” the letter said.

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

Full texts of the comments by Tauran, Daoud Martin, and Murphy-O’Connor are on the NCR Web site www.natcath.org/ncr_onli.htm under “documents.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 20, 2002