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Western Press Review: Papal Visit Hits Roadblocks In Greece, Syria

  • Daisy Sindelar

Prague, 8 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Many commentators in today's Western press focus on Pope John Paul's historic journey of religious reconciliation to Greece, Syria and Malta -- a visit which has proved a surprising forum for some of the most vivid expressions of religious intolerance in recent memory. Editorials and comments condemn the strong anti-Semitic rhetoric voiced by Syria's fledgling president Bashar al-Assad, and criticize the Vatican for its lack of response. Other comments look at lingering anti-Roman Catholic sentiment in the Orthodox church and the lasting importance of religion in the Middle East.


Under the headline "Vexed Mission of Reconciliation," an editorial in "The New York Times" says: "Slowed by age and ill health, John Paul has retraced the footsteps of the Apostle Paul in a trip meant to broaden his embrace of other religions. [But] the current journey to Greece, Syria and Malta has been marred by the crude anti-Jewish statements of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and an attack on Israel by Syria's Muslim leader (Mufti Ahmad Kuftaro)."

The paper adds: "The Pope's failing heath [has] added poignancy to his mission of recognizing the [Catholic] church's past mistakes and establishing a basis for respectful relations with other faiths. [It] is unfortunate that his hosts undermined the occasion with bigotry."


In "The Washington Post," columnist Richard Cohen criticizes the failure of the Pope to offer a rebuttal to the Syrian president's remarks. He writes: "It would have been downright bracing if the pope had set aside his personal agenda [and] treated Assad's remarks as both an expression of impermissible anti-Semitism and a deeply wounding personal affront. After all, John Paul has made reconciliation with the Jews a hallmark of his papacy."

Cohen adds: "There is something sad and pathetic about a trip undertaken in the name of Middle East peace being used by the likes of Assad to broadcast his message of hate. [To] vilify the Israeli enemy as diabolic, and for that language to be broadcast throughout the region -- with the Pope's silence mistakenly taken as assent -- hardly represents a step toward peace."


Also in "The Washington Post," an editorial says that Assad, in his behavior during the pope's visit, offered a "vile demonstration" of why the Syrian government is "unworthy of respect or good relations with the United States or any other democratic country."

Calling the Syrian leader "a 35-year-old naif," the paper continues: "[The pope's] decision to visit Syria and to become the first pontiff to visit a mosque offered Mr. Assad a remarkable opportunity. The former ophthalmologist has been struggling to establish himself as a credible leader both in and outside of Syria. [But] since taking office, he has abandoned his father [Hafez Assad's] uneven efforts to reach out to Israel and the West and instead taken a series of militant and provocative steps, ranging from increased support for the Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon to the illegal export of hundreds of millions of dollars of Iraqi oil through a Syrian pipeline."

It adds: "Mr. Assad converted a visit meant to symbolize tolerance and reconciliation into a display of obtuseness by the Vatican in the face of religious ignorance and hatred."


In a comment in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," "New York Post" columnist Rod Dreher writes that although opposition to the Vatican is to be expected from various corners of the religious and non-religious world, "you do not expect it from Christians, especially Christian clergy." He continues: "But in the days preceding [John Paul's] arrival in Greece, the rank-and-file Orthodox clerical union denounced him as an 'arch-heretic' and the 'two-horned grotesque monster of Rome.' Greece, presumably, is a modern European democracy. Yet its government had to deploy a large police presence to prevent Orthodox zealots from harming a stooped and trembling octogenarian Catholic priest."

Dreher adds that for many people, it is impossible to understand "the way the Crusader sack of Constantinople in 1204 shaped the Greek Orthodox soul. True, the Crusaders behaved like barbarians, and no Roman Catholic today would defend them. But eight centuries is a long time to hold a grudge."

Dreher concludes: "Unlike his Orthodox counterparts, this pontiff lives in the real world. He understands that if Christianity is to survive, much less thrive, in the third millennium, believers cannot afford quarrels over past grievances."


Commenting on the Pope's visit in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Wolfgang Guenter Lerch says that "religious faith plays a much more important role [in the Middle East] than in contemporary Europe." That, he writes, "is quickly evident to anyone who studies or visits the region. Far from being intellectually defeated by historicism and secularization, religion in the Middle East still helps shape people's individual and collective identity."

Lerch says that Syria "is a secular republic only on paper. Even if Islam is not the official religion there," he writes, "its influence on family and public life remains profound -- even more so than two decades ago. The legitimacy of the head of state is also a religious issue: For the past 30 years, Syria has been ruled by the Assad family, members of the Alawite Islamic sect. As the Alawites were long treated as a heretical minority, Hafez Assad, the late father of the current leader Bashar Assad, had to have his credentials as an authentic Moslem certified by the highest mufti in Syria. That the head of state had to be a Muslim was never in dispute."

He adds: "The Pope has been received in Syria with respect and reverence, and not just by the country's many Christians, but by its Muslims, too. Unfortunately, this did not stop Mr. Assad from sharply criticizing 'the Jews' and Israel in a way which was crassly at odds with the appeals for peace the pontiff himself had addressed to the leaders of all three 'Abrahamic religions.'"


An editorial in the "Financial Times" says that euro-zone governments are waking up to the fact that a single currency does not necessarily mean cheaper finance for national companies. The paper says: "An increasing number of European companies are choosing to bypass traditional funding from the banks and go straight to the markets."

The paper adds: "Some European governments, which were comfortable with the cozy network of relationships between companies, banks and politicians, are finding it hard to adapt. Torn between the desires to preserve national champions and to promote competitiveness, they are not sure which way to turn." It concludes: "Until there is a more wholehearted commitment to shareholder culture, companies will be wary of launching takeover bids and investors will regard equities in Europe as less attractive than those in more shareholder-oriented countries such as the U.S."


The Western press continues to examine the reasons behind the surprise ouster of the U.S. from the UN Human Rights Commission. Two comments published in today's "The Washington Post" take opposing views of the ouster's message for the Bush administration. Harold Koh, who led two U.S. delegations to the commission, writes that in last Thursday's (May 3) vote, the U.S., with 29 of a possible 54 votes, "trailed not just our competitors for the three Western seats but also such human rights outlaws as Sudan and Pakistan. Clearly the world was trying to teach us a lesson."

He continues: "Last week's vote is a wake-up call that the era of automatic global deference to U.S. leadership on human rights is over. [U.S.] belief in our global exceptionalism has too often led us to vote alone at the commission, falsely assuming that such isolationism has no costs. In the session just past, [the U.S.] stood alone or nearly alone in refusing to support resolutions supporting lower-cost access to HIV/AIDS drugs, acknowledging a human right to adequate food, condemning disappearances and calling for a moratorium on the death penalty."

He adds: "[U.S. response] should be neither indifference nor anger but action. [Even] after last week's debacle, the world still wants American leadership on human rights. The question is: [Does the U.S.] still have the courage and vision to provide it?"


An editorial in "The Washington Post" says that, in "crowing about the U.S. defeat, [China's] government said the United States had 'undermined the atmosphere for dialogue.'" It continues: "What exactly do the Chinese mean by 'dialogue'? Presumably they're not looking to talk about Liu Yapin, a Chinese-American businessman who was dragged off a street in China by security forces on March 8 [and] has been held incommunicado ever since. [Nor] are the Chinese interested in dialogue on the Princeton [University]-trained demographer Li Shaomin, a U.S. citizen also being held for unknown reasons. Nor about Gao Zhan, the American University researcher who is in detention and whose 5-year-old [child] also was hauled away for a month."

The paper goes on: "They're [also] not looking for fruitful exchange on the 79-year-old Catholic Bishop Shi Enxiang whom they've imprisoned, the churches they've razed, the Falun Gong practitioners who have died in jail, the Tibetan monks who are locked up, the Democracy Party activists in labor camps."

It adds: "The Bush administration was blind-sided last week, [and] that reflects badly on its preparations and professionalism. But if the administration learns from this defeat that it should get along more collegially with those governments that bully and abuse their own citizens, [it] will have learned the wrong lesson."


Two other comments look at U.S. plans to push ahead with an anti-missile defense system -- known as NMD, for National Missile Defense. "The Wall Street Journal Europe" columnist George Melloan seeks to rebut critics of the plan, saying that the system will work. He writes: "[U.S. President George W.] Bush clearly intends to end the Clinton policy of starving missile defense of research and development dollars. But even on the thin gruel Clinton provided, anti-missile rockets have demonstrated some prowess."

He continues: "Some European leaders, of course, want instant gratification, even as they pare their own defense budgets to the bone. The leftish weekly "Die Zeit" in Hamburg pompously demanded: 'Convince us.' Perhaps the shoe could be put on the other foot. American officials, now consulting with allies around the globe, might say, convince us that you deserve the protection that America is so ready to provide countries contributing so little to their own or the common defense." This, he adds, "would be a particularly appropriate question to ask the Europeans who set Western civilization back a few notches last week by voting the U.S. off the UN Human Rights Commission."


In "The Washington Times," analyst Doug Bandow writes: "NMD has faced its sharpest opposition abroad, from Russia and [many] NATO members. However, Kyiv is actively rebutting their objections." He continues: "[Volodymyr Horbulin], chairman of the State Commission on the Defense Industry of Ukraine and his nation's leading voice on the [1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty has] pointed to today's dramatically different threat environment." Horbulin, he adds, has indicated that Kyiv is interested in using its experience and research capabilities to help produce America's defense network.

Bandow continues: "Kyiv speaks with authority as a successor state to the ABM treaty. [Ukraine] voluntarily gave up the world's third largest nuclear arsenal, and has since complied with a variety of arms control agreements. In doing so, it has left itself vulnerable. [The United States] should bring Ukraine into negotiations over NMD and the ABM treaty. Doing so would help loosen what some observers fear is a tightening embrace with Moscow. Moreover, involving Ukraine would bolster the decision to deploy NMD. Who better to deflate Russian objections than a fellow inheritor of the treaty?"