By Don Hill and Andrew F. Tully
A special envoy from Pope John Paul II has held a special press conference in Washington saying a U.S. military attack on Iraq would be "illegal" and "unjust." Cardinal Pio Laghi made the comments yesterday after a 40-minute meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush. His highly public intervention is only the latest in a series of diplomatic maneuvers by the Vatican. One long-time observer tells RFE/RL correspondents Andrew F. Tully and Don Hill that the Pope appears to be aiming his message not so much at Bush and the U.S. administration, but to the Muslim "street."
Washington, 6 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Pope John Paul II has mobilized his moral forces in opposition to a U.S.-led war on Iraq.
The pope dispatched Cardinal Pio Laghi from Rome to the White House for a 40-minute meeting yesterday with U.S. President George W. Bush. Laghi met Bush on the same day that France, Germany, and Russia issued a statement saying they will not allow the Security Council to approve a resolution that could pave the way to war.
Speaking at a Washington news conference after the White House meeting, Laghi said it would be "illegal" and "unjust" to attack Iraq before all diplomatic options are exhausted. The diplomat -- a former Vatican ambassador to the United States -- said he spoke just as frankly with Bush in laying out John Paul's position.
At the news conference, Laghi summarized the position: "The Holy See's position has been twofold: first, the Iraqi government is obliged to fulfill completely and fully its international obligations regarding human rights and disarmament under the United Nations resolutions, with respect for international norms. Second, these obligations and their fulfillment must continue to [be] pursued within the framework of the United Nations."
Laghi said he reminded Bush that their meeting was occurring on Ash Wednesday, the start of the 40-day Christian season of Lent, marked by fasting and penitence before the celebration of Easter. The pope, leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the largest branch of Christianity, has urged believers to dedicate their Lenten devotion to prayers for peace.
The papal envoy also gave the president a letter from John Paul. Neither Laghi nor the White House would disclose its contents.
Hillel Fradkin is the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, a private institution that studies policy in the context of religion. He says it is not uncommon for religious leaders to try to influence political leaders. He cites the instance of American clergy who opposed U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and '70s, as well as in the Gulf War 12 years ago.
Fradkin disagrees with critics who have accused Bush of taking an inappropriate religious tone, for example, characterizing U.S. enemies with the absolutist adjective "evil."
"I don't myself regard that charge as fair. There are other grounds on which to articulate a real distinction between good and evil. In a way, I think the president articulated one sometime within the last two weeks when he detailed the characteristics of Saddam Hussein and his actions over 20-plus years. He concluded by saying, 'If that's not evil, I don't know what is.' I don't think you have to have a strictly religious point of view to regard that as evil."
John. L. Allen Jr., veteran Vatican correspondent for the authoritative U.S.-based "National Catholic Reporter," agrees that for the pope to speak out in a general way for peace is not unusual. "The intense, high-level, sort of full-court, diplomatic press we have seen on [the possibility of war in Iraq] is exceptional. I think it reflects the fact that the Vatican believes that this particular conflict would be uniquely disastrous for a couple of reasons. One is that they worry that it would inflame the Christian-Muslim relationship and place Christian minorities, especially behind the lines, if you will, in the Islamic world, at risk."
The other reason, he says, is that Vatican diplomats believe a U.S. attack on Iraq would weaken the United Nations and efforts to build an international legal and political system.
Allen says the Vatican started a number of months ago, as war fever rose, putting out signals that it would be opposed to the conflict. But the pope, himself, had not spoken out in his own voice.
Just before Christmas that changed in a speech known as the "Angelus Address." "In his 'Angelus Address' the week before Christmas, the pope for the first time spoke personally and specifically against the war in Iraq, and from that moment the Vatican diplomatic activity kicked into high gear," Allen said.
In addition to papal envoys to Iraq and the United States, there has been a stream of high-level visitors to the Vatican. These include Germany's foreign minister, the foreign minister of Iraq, the prime ministers of Britain and Spain, and the vice president of the Iranian parliament.
Allen says he thinks Vatican officials suspect that war is virtually inevitable and do not realistically expect to head it off.
"I think the audience to whom the Vatican is speaking is not just, or even really primarily, the Western powers. I think the audience for this activity is the Islamic 'street.' And I think the point they're trying to make is that, if this war comes, it is not the Catholic Church's war. It is not Christianity's war. This is not a Christian-Muslim conflict."
The long-time Vatican watcher says that, in his view, the Vatican's concern is for relations between two great religions, Islam and Christianity, and for the safety of Christian minorities in predominantly Muslim countries. These include a million Christians in Iraq as well as sizable Christian communities in Egypt, Pakistan, Sudan, and Nigeria -- all places where interfaith tension already exists.