Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Vatican's response to the war between Israel and Hamas

The Italian journalist and commentator on all-things-Vatican Sandro Magister discusses the oft-perplexing policy of the Church with regard to the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, barely concealing his frustration in the title: "In Gaza, the Vatican Raises the White Flag":
The authorities of the Catholic Church do not defend the existence of Israel – which its enemies want to annihilate, and is ultimately at stake in the conflict – with the same explicit, powerful determination with which they raise their voices in defense of the "nonnegotiable" principles concerning human life.

This has been seen in recent days. The authorities of the Church, and Benedict XVI himself, have raised their voices in condemnation of "the massive violence that has broken out in the Gaza Strip in response to other violence" only after Israel began bombing the installations of the terrorist movement Hamas in that territory. Not before. Not when Hamas was tightening its brutal grip on Gaza, massacring the Muslims faithful to president Abu Mazen, humiliating the tiny Christian communities, and launching rockets every day against the Israelis in the surrounding area.

About Hamas and its vaunted "mission" of wiping the Jewish state from the face of the earth, about Hamas as an outpost for Iran's expansionist aims in the Middle East, about Hamas as an ally of Hezbollah and Syria, the Vatican authorities have never raised the red alert. They have never shown that they see Hamas as a deadly danger to Israel and an obstacle to the birth of a Palestinian state, in addition to its being a nightmare for the Arab regimes in the area, from Egypt to Jordan to Saudi Arabia.

In the December 29-30 issue of L'Osservatore Romano, a front-page commentary by Luca M. Possati, checked word by word by the Vatican secretariat of state, claimed that "for the Jewish state, the only possible idea of security must come through dialogue with all, even those who do not recognize it." Read: Hamas.

Many are prompted to wonder what kind of "dialogue" can possibly be achieved with those who not only show little inclination to engage in discourse, but, according to its fundamental statement of principles, asserts that "Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors"; that militant Jihad against Israel is "an individual duty binding on every Muslim man and woman"; that "[Peace] initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement" and that "There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad. The initiatives, proposals and International Conferences are but a waste of time, an exercise in futility."

This past week, Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, fanned the flames of controversy with a comparison of the Gaza Strip to "a huge concentration camp". John Allen Jr covered the incident:

To be fair to Martino, the full text of his comments on Gaza comes across as more balanced than the sound-bite cited above. Here's what he said, in a Jan. 7 interview with the Italian Web site Il Sussidiario ("Subsidiarity"), in my translation: "The consequences of egoism are hatred, poverty and injustice. It's always the unarmed populations who pay. Look at the conditions in Gaza -- more and more, it resembles a huge concentration camp. …What's needed is will on both sides, because both are guilty. Israelis and Palestinians are sons of the same land, and they have to be separated, like you'd do with two brothers. … If they can't come to an agreement, someone else has to feel the duty to do it. The world can't stand by and do nothing."

Yet even given that context, Martino is no naïf, having spent 16 years as the Vatican's observer to the United Nations. He had to know that his reference to a "concentration camp" could not help but call to mind the crude imagery popular in Arab and Islamic extremist circles comparing Israel to Nazi Germany. Cartoons routinely show the Star of David twisted into a swastika, Israeli Defense Forces dressed up as SS storm troopers, and so on. The comment was, therefore, the diplomatic equivalent of a poke in the eye. (That's not to mention the dubious wisdom of a Vatican official invoking the memory of World War II-era concentration camps, since the question of Christian acquiescence in the Holocaust remains a tremendously sensitive point in Christian/Jewish relations.)

This, of course, is merely the latest instance in which Israel and its supporters have complained about prejudice in the Vatican's approach to what it calls the "Holy Land" -- a linguistic convention intended to express neutrality, but taken by many Israelis as a subtle refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state.

Mr. Allen, appearing sympathetic to the frustration of Israelis with the Vatican's response ("here's what drives Israelis crazy: Generally, the Vatican gets cranked up to denounce violence in the Holy Land only when it's initiated by Israel"), nonetheless emphasizes four points to put it all in context:
  1. First, the broad aim of Vatican diplomacy is to support a two-state solution that would provide stability and security for both Israelis and Palestinians. As a result, commentary from the Holy See has been critical of violence on both sides. In his Angelus address on January 1, for example, Pope Benedict XVI affirmed "the profound desire to live in peace that stirs in the hearts of the vast majority of both the Israeli and Palestinian populations, which has one again been placed at risk by the massive violence unleashed in the Gaza Strip in response to other violence." On Jan. 4, the pope implored "the authorities and those responsible on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, to act immediately to put an end to this tragic situation."
  2. Second, in the past the most egregiously anti-Israeli line from the Vatican generally came from L'Osservatore Romano under its former editor, Italian layman Mario Agnes. A transition in leadership has meant that this time around, the tone from Vatican media has been more even-handed. A statement from Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, in late December on Vatican Radio offers a case in point: "Hamas is a prisoner of a logic of hatred," Lombardi said, "Israel of a logic of trusting in force as the best response to hatred."
  3. Third, Benedict XVI has been far more willing to openly challenge Muslim leaders to repudiate violence and terrorism than John Paul II, as well as to demand "reciprocity," meaning an acknowledgement of the right to religious freedom, from majority Islamic states.
  4. Fourth, despite Martino's rhetoric, not everyone perceives an anti-Israeli tilt to Vatican commentary. After Benedict XVI condemned the violence in Gaza on Jan. 6, a prominent Saudi commentator wrote: "The pope could and should have been much more explicit. He should have convened a synod for Gaza, as he did for Lebanon. But he preferred to kowtow to the Jews, whatever their crimes and sins."

* * *

Last week, The Vatican expressed alarm over the burning of Israeli flags by Muslims protesting against Israeli actions in Gaza during Muslim prayers staged outside Italian cathedrals (according to Robert Owen of the Times (UK), reports):

Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Vatican Council for Justice and Peace, said he was not disturbed "by prayer as such." If Muslims wished to come to St Peter's to pray, he would not object, the cardinal said. "Prayer always does good".

However prayers held recently outside the Duomo in Milan and the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna, with thousands of prostrate Muslims facing Mecca, had been accompanied by flag burning which was not only anti Israeli but anti Semitic, with protesters carrying banners depicting the Star of David alongside the Nazi swastika. "What matters is the spirit in which one prays - and prayer excludes hate" Cardinal Martino said.

Bishop Ernesto Vecchi, vicar general of the Bologna diocese, said the Muslim prayers were "not just prayers but a challenge, not so much to the basilica itself as to our democratic system and culture". Bishop Vecchi suggested the staging of mass prayers outside Christian churches in Italy was a deliberate move "on orders from afar" as part of a strategy of "Islamisation" of Europe.

However, Abu Imad, the imam of the main Milan mosque, claimed that the demonstration had ended up on the cathedral square "by chance" at the hour of prayer, "so we prayed. There was no provocation or insult intended."

On Friday, January 9th, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See's permanent observer at the U.N. offices in Geneva, delivered the following address regarding the conflict in Gaza (via Zenit News Service):

The Delegation of the Holy See would like to express its solidarity with both the people in Gaza, who are dying and suffering because of the ongoing military assault by the Israeli Defense Forces, and the people in Sderot, Ashkelon and other Israeli cities who are living under the constant terror of rocket attacks launched by Palestinian militants from within the Gaza Strip, which have caused casualties and wounded a number of people.

The patriarchs and heads of churches of Jerusalem marked last Sunday as a day of prayer with the intention to put an end to the conflict in Gaza and to restore peace and justice in the Holy Land. It is their conviction that the continuation of bloodshed and violence will not lead to peace and justice but breed more hatred and hostility and thus a continued confrontation between the two peoples. These religious leaders call upon both parties to return to their senses and refrain from all violent acts, which only bring destruction and tragedy. They urge them instead to work to resolve their differences through peaceful and nonviolent means.

The Holy Father, Benedict XVI, underlined last Sunday that the refusal of dialogue between the parties has led to unspeakable suffering for the population in Gaza, victims of hatred and war.

Mr. President, it is evident that the warring parties are not able to exit from this vicious circle of violence without the help of the international community that should therefore fulfill its responsibilities, intervene actively to stop the bloodshed, provide access for emergency humanitarian assistance, and end all forms of confrontation. At the same time, the international community should remain engaged in removing the root causes of the conflict that can only be resolved within the framework of a lasting solution of the greater Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based on the international resolutions adopted during the years.

May I conclude with the words of Pope Benedict XVI pronounced yesterday during the annual meeting with diplomats accredited to the Holy See: "Once again I would repeat that military options are no solution and that violence, wherever it comes from and whatever form it takes, must be firmly condemned. I express my hope that, with the decisive commitment of the international community, the ceasefire in the Gaza Strip will be re-established -- an indispensable condition for restoring acceptable living conditions to the population -- and that negotiations for peace will resume, with the rejection of hatred, acts of provocation and the use of arms."


Leon Bernotas


Cardinal Renato Martino on this issue is Utterly Correct.
Israel IS the Criminal Aggressor and Invader of the Palestinian Land.