National Catholic Reporter ®

February 21, 2003
Vol. 2, No.26

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And tonight’s guest is … Vatican plays host to an uneasy world

 “Violence never again. War never again. Terrorism never again. In God’s name, may all religions bring upon the earth justice and peace, forgiveness, life and love.”

Pope John Paul II
The Apostolic Palace has felt a bit like the set of the Tonight Show recently — a different celebrity guest every day. 

     On Feb. 7, the German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer was here to meet the pope, Feb. 14 brought Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz, then on Feb. 18 U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. The same day the pope was briefed by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who had just returned from his high-profile special mission to Baghdad. On Saturday, Feb. 22, British Prime Minister Tony Blair will arrive for a private tet-a-tet with John Paul II. 

     Looking at this activity through the lens of secular geopolitics, it is striking that, in a world that worships wealth and power, the Holy See — with no economy and no army — nevertheless manages to make itself relevant. This may be witness to the charisma of John Paul II, but it also reflects the unique nature of Vatican diplomacy. Because the pope and his emissaries aren’t seeking territorial or economic advantage, in many cases they will be heard with sympathy by all sides to a conflict. 

     Tarik Aziz provided testimony to this point, when asked by CNN for his reaction to John Paul’s insistence that Iraq comply with the weapons inspectors and United Nations resolutions.

     “I am not annoyed by that, you see,” Aziz said. “There is a different motive when a good-hearted, impartial person like the Holy Father says that. When an American says it, with a different motive, it’s different. It looks like the same thing, but it’s different.”

     From the point of view of church politics, it’s remarkable how John Paul’s anti-war line has, at least outside the United States, produced clear public unanimity across the spectrum of Catholic opinion. In Europe, even traditionally conservative, pro-Western voices are joining the anti-war chorus. The conservative Catholic movement Comunione e Liberazione, for example, put out a statement in February that was headlined: “We are against this war; we are with the pope.”

     Yet this is to some extent an artificial unanimity, created by the strong undertow of papal authority. How long it will hold up, especially if war does break out, is an open question. There are already signs of strain.

     Respected Italian journalist Sandro Magister, for example, voiced the discomfort some conservative Catholics felt over Cardinal Roger Etchegaray’s peace mission to Baghdad in a mid-February analysis. Reflecting on an interview Etchegaray gave upon his return, Magister complained of an “incomprehensible” and “deafening” silence on Hussein’s brutality to his own people.

     “The cardinal does not devote a single word to the horrible sufferings endured for decades by the Iraqi people, not at the hands of external agents, but at those of its tyrant and those who surround him,” Magister wrote.

     Taking into consideration the Etchegaray interview and another given by one of the Franciscan friars who welcomed Aziz to Assisi, Magister sounded a warning about moral fuzziness.

     Both suggest “a certain confusion between true and false, between good and evil, between just and unjust,” Magister wrote. “On a question like that of Iraq, so critical for the destiny of the world, the danger is … that same indiscriminate relativism, in the dressings of peace, that the church itself is the first to identify as the great temptation of today’s Christians.”

     Moreover, not all of those who have been brought into line behind the pope are necessarily thrilled about it. The Comunione e Liberazione statement hinted at this tension. 

     “The pope does not de-legitimate America,” the statement insisted, obviously taking aim at some in the Catholic peace movement who might. “He does not say that America is the bilge of all the vices of the rich West; he does not de-baptize or excommunicate all the Catholic soldiers who have left for Iraq; but he invites everyone to join him in prayer.”

     “We are citizens of Italy, allies of the United States,” the statement reads. “We do not burn American flags … we’re not seeking the utopia of a society so perfect that it would be useless for us to be good.” 

     This Catholic challenge to the anti-war line in Europe is still rather implicit. In the United States, however, there is an open form of Catholic support for a war in Iraq, centered on intellectuals such as Michael Novak and George Weigel. After his recent trip to Rome, Novak has published another paper on the subject, arguing that the decision to use force belongs to lay political authorities, not clergy, who sometimes overstep their competence in expressing judgments on political issues. (

     This is how things go in the Catholic Church. When the pope speaks clearly on an issue, it marginalizes alternative views, but it doesn’t make them go away. There are some in the Catholic world, both hawks on the right and human rights advocates on the left, who think that the peace movement is naïve about Hussein’s cruelty and his capacity to wreak further havoc. 

     I suspect this ambiguity was to some extent behind the Feb. 17 interview given to L’Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops, by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s Secretary of State.

     “The Holy See is not pacifist at all costs, as it admits legitimate defense on the part of states,” Sodano said. “What should be said, rather, is that the Holy See is always peace-making, as it works intensely to prevent the outbreak of conflicts.”

* * *

     Media interest was strong for the visit of Aziz, the cigar-smoking, white-haired emissary to the West of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Aziz is a Chaldean Catholic, an Eastern-rite church loyal to Rome. When he met John Paul, the pope pressed a rosary into his hand and asked him to take it home “to his wife,” who is said to have a strong Marian devotion.

     In January I asked an Iraqi Chaldean Catholic bishop if Aziz practiced his faith. He told me that Aziz “has no time,” but that his family is very devout.

     Friday night I attended a press conference given by Aziz at Rome’s Foreign Press Club. At Aziz’s right hand was Fr. Jean-Marie Benjamin, a 56-year-old French priest who has long been a fierce critic of the U.N.-imposed sanctions in Iraq, and more broadly of Western policy in the Middle East. 

     (Benjamin, by the way, is a remarkable Renaissance figure. A classical music composer, he worked for the United Nations from 1983 to 1988, and in 1983 composed the official UNESCO hymn. After being ordained a priest in 1991, Benjamin accompanied former Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli on diplomatic missions. Today he directs the Beato Angelico Foundation, which deals with cultural issues, in Assisi.)

     It was Benjamin who invited Aziz to Rome and who arranged his schedule.

     “Why this initiative?” Benjamin asked rhetorically at the press conference. “To remind the world that Iraq is a lay republic, with a Christian minister,” he said. “Cooperation between Christians and Muslims is exemplary.” Bin Laden, Benjamin said, would never allow one of his men to go pray at the tomb of St. Francis.

     Aziz was, predictably, positive about the pope’s stance on the war.

     “I came first and foremost to meet the pope, and to deliver a message for His Holiness from Saddam Hussein,” Aziz said. “The president and people of Iraq appreciate the clear position of the Holy See in rejecting the logic of war and in saying straightforwardly that this war is immoral. I can add, illegal,” Aziz said.

     Aziz warned European nations to stay out of a U.S.-led war.

     “If the Christian countries of Europe participate in a war of aggression, it will be interpreted as a crusade against the Arab world and Islam,” he said. “It will poison relations between the Arab world and the Christian world.”

     Aziz was also asked about the possibility of a papal trip to Baghdad.

     “We have excellent diplomatic relations with the Holy See,” Aziz replied. “A visit to Iraq by the Holy Father or any Vatican official is a matter of principle. It is a normal thing. Right now there is a high-ranking official in Baghdad, Cardinal Etchegaray. But in the present crisis, such a visit would not be a good idea, for security reasons, as you know.”

     The dramatic peak of the press conference came when Menachem Gantz, the Rome correspondent for Maariv in Israel asked Aziz if Iraq had any plans to attack Israel, and what Aziz thought about Arab states such as Qatar and Kuwait, which are supporting the U.S. position.

     “When I came to this press conference, it was not my intention to answer questions from the Israeli media,” Aziz said. “I’m sorry.”

     The president of the Foreign Press Club insisted that Gantz is an accredited journalist and member of the society, and asked Aziz to respond to his question. Again, Aziz refused. Some journalists booed and whistled, and a few walked out, but the press conference continued. That angered some of my colleagues, who wondered aloud what the effect might have been had Ariel Sharon refused to take a question from an Arab journalist.

     Later, Rome’s center-left mayor Walter Veltroni announced that he had cancelled an appointment with Aziz to protest the action.

     “I can’t accept that a public figure and representative of a country would deny to anyone, whatever position they represent, the right to express himself, creating vetoes and discrimination,” Veltroni said.

     Benjamin told me in an exclusive Feb. 17 interview that while Aziz’s choice not to respond was a mistake looked at through the lens of Western politics, it has to be understood from Iraq’s point of view. “Israel has defied 31 United Nations resolutions, and no one is threatening to bomb them,” Benjamin said. Anyway, he said, refusing to respond to the Israeli media is official Iraqi policy, and Aziz couldn’t adjust it on the fly.

     Benjamin denied, by the way, that Veltroni ever had a meeting with Aziz to begin with.

     Aziz next spent a half-day on Saturday, Feb. 15, in Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis. He prayed in front of the Porziuncola, the small church built by Francis by hand, which is now contained within the massive basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Then Aziz moved on to the lower basilica and the tomb of St. Francis. 

     The Franciscans gave Aziz a replica of the perpetual lamp John Paul II lit during the Jan. 24, 2002, gathering of world religious leaders to pray for peace, and showed him the ivory horn that Sultan Kamil of Egypt gave Francis in 1219 at the height of the crusades. It is a symbol of Christian/Muslim understanding.

     The congregation of some 25 people then read a prayer the pope wrote for the Jan. 24 event: “Violence never again. War never again. Terrorism never again. In God’s name, may all religions bring upon the earth justice and peace, forgiveness, life and love.”

     Fr. Vincenzo Coli, custodian of the Franciscan convent in Assisi, rejected suggestions of a political subtext to the visit.

     “Here we follow the teachings of Francis,” he said. “We never put ourselves in the position of asking a pilgrim, ‘Who are you? What is your program?’”

* * *

     Which brings us to one of the more striking sidebars to the Assisi visit, the conspicuous presence alongside Aziz of Archbishop Hilarion Capucci, an auxiliary bishop of the Greek Melkite church in communion with Rome. Capucci, who led a tiny Melkite community in Jerusalem in the 1960s and 1970s, carries the personal title of “patriarch.”

     To call Capucci’s past “checkered” would be an under-statement. He first came to public attention when he was arrested on August 18, 1974, by Israeli security forces in after returning to Jerusalem from a trip to Lebanon. His car was found stuffed with TNT and guns headed for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. 

     At the time, Israeli interrogators said Capucci had blamed “blackmail” by Al Fatah guerillas, claiming that they had threatened him with physical force and “disclosure of actions that might threaten his position in the church.” In August 2002, Franciscan Fr. David Maria Jeager, spokesperson for the Franciscan custodians of the holy sites in Jerusalem, supported this hypothesis in an interview with the Italian publication Libero. Jeager said Capucci in the 1960s had developed “personal interests, not at all compatible with the dignity of the priestly or episocopal office” that had left him vulnerable to Palestinian blackmail. 

     Reports suggest that prior to the 1967 war, Capucci had worked easily with Israeli authorities, so much so that some regarded him as a “collaborator.” After his arrest, however, he became an ardent champion of the Palestinian cause. 

     Capucci was sentenced to 12 years in prison and began organizing an international campaign to secure his release. At one point he declared a hunger strike. Pope Paul VI intervened with a personal letter to then-President of Israel Ephraim Katziv. Capucci was released in 1977, with, Israeli sources insist, an understanding that he would stay out of politics.

     If so, the deal has been honored largely in the breach. Capucci served as a member of the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s parliament-in-exile, and in 1980 was dispatched by Yassir Arafat to negotiate the return of the bodies of American soldiers lost in the attempt to rescue the embassy hostages in Iran. 

     Capucci, now 81, has lived in a private apartment in Rome since his release, and according to sources, has maintained a low profile within Melkite circles in town. Yet he is quite visible on the political scene, often taking part in demonstrations or appearing on TV. Italian author Oriana Fallaci, whose recent anti-Islamic polemic La Rabbia e L’Orgoglio was a publishing sensation in Italy, has called Capucci “that saintly man with a Mercedes full of bombs who lives in the Vatican.”

     In December 2000, Capucci made a visit to Lebanon to visit Sheikh Nabil Qaouq, a Hezbollah leader. In front of reporters, when he reached the Lebanese-Israeli border, Capucci picked up a stone and hurled it in the direction of the Israeli territory.

     “I wish I had been with the heroes of the intifada to take part in their battle for the independence of Palestine,” Capucci said.

     In March 2002, Capucci participated in a march in Rome which had been billed as an apolitical appeal for peace in the Middle East, but which some believe turned into a pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli exercise, with slogans and banners that even members of Italy’s secular left described as “anti-Semitic.” A group of young Palestinians dressed as suicide bombers led the procession.

     In October 2002, Capucci and Benjamin held a press conference during a trip to Baghdad to oppose a U.S.-led war. “If Bush attacks Iraq, the resentment and hatred of the Arab-Islamic world will be accentuated against him personally and against the interests of the American people,” Capucci warned.

     Privately, Israeli sources express irritation at this activity, arguing that it violates the spirit of their agreement with the Holy See. Vatican officials say Capucci has no official church assignment and speaks only for himself, though they concede that no canonical process has ever been brought against him.

     In Assisi, Capucci was quasi-ubiquitous alongside Aziz. He spoke freely to the press.

     “I said to Aziz that he must not give anyone an excuse for attacking Iraq, and hence resolution 1441 must be scrupulously observed. The Iraqis, he assured me, will respect these norms. … I pray that the angels may return to sing in heaven of peace on earth.”

     Capucci then added a critical remark about Israel.

     “Israel is like a spoiled child that has ended up living a double standard,” he said.

     As this column went to press, it was not clear whether the Israelis planned to lodge a formal protest with the Vatican about Capucci’s presence. For those already alarmed, however, that the Catholic Church’s version of the peace movement is unbalanced and insufficiently critical of Arab regimes with sketchy human rights records, Capucci’s high profile in Assisi probably did not help.

     Yet Benjamin, who said Capucci more or less invited himself to the event, didn’t see it that way.

     “It would be incredible if a bishop of the Catholic Church couldn’t go to pray at the tomb of St. Francis,” Benjamin said. “Everyone can go to Assisi, even followers of other religions. Why not Capucci?”

* * *

     I recently asked new Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad Andraos Abouna, whom I met on the occasion of his Jan. 6 episcopal ordination in Rome, what he made of Etchegaray’s Baghdad visit. 

     “It was as a light of hope among the darkness of unstable politics,” Abouna said. “It showed Iraqis the solidarity of the Vatican, and it was a pastoral visit as well. His Eminence was a messenger of peace to Abraham’s homeland, Ur of the Chaldeans, and a voice against the immoral war.”

     The alarm among Iraqi Christians there is palpable. Some 200,000 Christians have fled the country since the first Gulf War. At the start of 1991, the Catholic population of Baghdad was more than 500,000. Today, Catholics number about 175,000. 

     “It’s like a biblical exodus,” one Vatican official said in mid-February.

* * *

     I have been asked on several occasions why the pope doesn’t send an emissary to George Bush to make the case for peace, as he did to Saddam Hussein. At one stage it was rumored that he might ask Cardinal Pio Laghi, former papal ambassador to the United States, to undertake such a mission. Other potential envoys include Archbishop Renato Martino, who spent 16 years in the States as the Holy See’s observer at the United Nations, or Etchegaray.  On Friday, Feb. 21, a Roman newspaper reported that Etchegaray has been tapped for such a role, though it wasn't immediately clear how seriously to take the story.

     Why not do it?

     For one thing, John Paul already has an emissary in the United States, in the form of his nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo. Unlike the pope’s man in Iraq, Montalvo is free to speak as he likes, to make the case against government policy both in public and through channels. If he wants to see Bush, presumably he could get on his calendar. Hence the diplomatic need for a special emissary is not as compelling.

     In fact, diplomatic sources tell me that high-level contacts between the Vatican and the U.S. government are ongoing and intense.

     I have also been told on background that a papal emissary to Bush as a way of balancing Etchegaray’s visit to Hussein would be viewed negatively in Anglo-American circles, since they believe the dispute is not between Hussein and Bush, but between Hussein and the United Nations. In that sense, one senior Western diplomat told me, Kofi Annan’s visit to the pope was the appropriate counter-measure. The Vatican will take this view into consideration. It also coheres with the Vatican’s conviction that the United Nations must resolve this crisis, not one country acting alone.

     Despite the media focus on geopolitics, it must also be remembered that an important part of the logic for Etchegaray’s trip was not his meeting with Hussein, but outreach to the local Iraqi Christians, reassuring them that the pope would not forget them. The fate of Christian minorities exercises an enormous weight on Vatican diplomatic activity in the Middle East.

     Finally, as I noted above, there is already alarm in some circles that the Vatican’s anti-war push may be feeding the propaganda aims of the Hussein government. Vatican diplomats want to avoid a war, but they don’t want to hand Hussein a public relations triumph in the process. 

     If there is one thing that those of us who cover the pope have learned, however, it is never to feel too confident about what John Paul II will or will not do. 

* * *

     A final footnote from the Aziz visit: On Friday night, after the press conference, Aziz, Benjamin, and a few friends went to one of my favorite restaurants for dinner, Da Fortunato, near the Pantheon. (Among other things, it features a bread with olives baked in that’s terrific). Located just around the corner from the Italian Senate building, the place is a Roman classic, and the walls are full of pictures of VIPs from all walks of life — Helmut Kohl, Arnold Schwarznegger, Elizabeth Taylor. Therein lies the tale. According to the Roman daily Il Messagero, the staff took down the pictures of ex-American presidents for the evening, citing a “duty of hospitality” to their Iraqi guest. If so, I suspect Da Fortunato may have lost some business from the U.S. embassies in town. 

* * *

     Bishops and staff of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, the translation body that has been overhauled in recent months to bring it more into line with the literalistic approach favored by Rome, were in town Feb. 18 for meetings in the Congregation for Divine Worship. The topic was the statutes that govern ICEL, which Rome has insisted must be revised to give the congregation a direct role in governance, especially the appointment of staff and advisers.

     Though no details from the meeting were released, sources tell NCR that solutions more or less acceptable to all parties were reached. To some extent those compromises will give Rome the oversight authority it has been seeking. The new secretary of ICEL, English Fr. Bruce Harbert, has already received a nihil obstat, a formal clean bill of health, from the congregation.

     While critics of the ICEL overhaul regard the congregation’s desire to vet staff and advisors as a Vatican power-grab, sources in Rome offer a different interpretation. It is important to protect ICEL from the various liturgical watchdog groups in the English-speaking world, they say, such as Adoremus and Credo, who go over the backgrounds of ICEL personnel with a fine-tooth comb. The process of granting a nihil obstat, from this point of view, is a means of insuring that the agency’s key personnel have no theological skeletons in their closet.

     The Feb. 18 meeting was not the final stage in the process. The statutes will now return to an ICEL drafting committee, which will incorporate the results into a draft text. Then they will go to the ICEL executive board for review, then to the full commission of bishop delegates from English-speaking bishops’ conferences that form ICEL. The statutes will then be sent to the English-speaking conferences for approval, and will be approved by the commission after the conferences sign off. Finally, the statutes will be submitted to the congregation for recognitio, formal legal approval.

     Though the process sounds complicated, sources say the aim is to have it wrapped up by this summer. That in itself would represent a compromise from the Vatican, since the congregation had fixed March 28, 2003, as the cut-off date for completion of the process.

     Sources say that Cardinal Francis Arinze, the Nigerian who took over as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship last October, played a hands-on role in the Feb. 18 deliberations. Part of the logic behind his appointment was to have an English-speaker in charge, given the controversy that has surrounded liturgical issues in English, and this meeting suggests the strategy is bearing fruit.

     At the level of atmosphere, the tensions that used to cloud relations between ICEL and the congregation seem to have largely dispersed. Proof? During the Feb. 18 meeting, congregation personnel took the unprecedented step of serving sandwiches and tea to their ICEL guests. Given that not so long ago the ICEL staff wasn’t even permitted through the front door, it was a considerable step forward.

     I asked Harbert after the meetings wrapped up if this impression of “good vibrations” was correct.

     “The vibrations are excellent, and the sandwiches are the sacrament of that,” Harbert said.

* * *

     An interesting conference on “Media and Truth: An Interreligious Perspective on Ethical Reporting” took place Feb. 17-18 in Rome, at the Campodoglio, the city hall. It was co-sponsored by the city of Rome, the Foreign Press Association, the Austrian government, and the World Conference on Religions and Peace. The impresario was Lisa Palmieri-Billig, Rome correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and the Italian head of “Religions for Peace.”

     I had been asked to make a brief presentation on religious minorities in the Islamic world, a subject for which I am woefully under-qualified. Fortunately most panelists were better prepared to handle their tasks, and their remarks stimulated some engaging discussion.

     Jesuit Fr. Robert White of the Gregorian University presented a paper on the “ideological filter” in the press. It was an analysis of dynamics in the mass media, arguing that the less reporters know about a topic, the more likely they are to recycle stereotypes and official propaganda. 

     I was troubled, however, by one point White made. “Great journalists are people who have a sense of when a group is being treated unjustly, who have a passion for justice,” he said. Personally, I get nervous around journalists driven to oppose what they perceive as injustice, because sometimes they end up skewing the facts to support their crusades. I would rather say that a great journalist is one who feels a passion for the story.

     Myrna Shinbaum from the Anti-Defamation League in New York and Italian scholar Annamaria Rivera presented presentations on media stereotypes of Jews and Muslims, respectively. 

     Shinbuam passed along a packet of editorial cartoons culled from Arab and European papers, and some of the imagery was truly hair-raising: Sharon as Hitler, the Wailing Wall spelling out the word “hate,” a Hasidic-looking Jew sexually assaulting the Statue of Liberty. The association of the Nazi swastika with Israeli soldiers, politicians, etc., is by now a staple in Arab papers. 

     Rivera pointed out that the media frequently reports arrests of Muslim immigrants for alleged terrorist activity on the front page, but when they are released for an absence of proof, as recently happened in Naples, that development receives nowhere near the same level of attention. 

     Rivera argued that anti-Islamic prejudice is the mirror image of anti-Semitism. The newspaper La Padania of the far-right Italian Northern League, for example, recently carried an editorial cartoon of Osama Bin Laden with the caption: “Allah is God and the Kalishnikov is his prophet.” The parallel with some of the material Shinbaum distributed was striking.

     Unfortunately, at some points the exchange broke down into the sort of tit-for-tat swipes between Israelis and Arabs that are all too common in this sort of international meeting. (At one stage an Israel journalist declined to answer a question about the position of the Israeli government, saying he doesn’t represent the state. That led an Iraqi panelist to observe that it isn’t only Tarik Aziz who doesn’t take questions, which in turn prompted the Israeli to respond testily that the two situations were hardly comparable. On it went).

     But perhaps this is a question of perspective. Is the fact that Israeli/Palestinian tensions are reproduced in public dialogues the remarkable point, or is the very fact of the dialogue, despite the tension, the truly striking thing?

* * *

     Recently I learned that a rumor has made the rounds in some circles that I was somehow responsible for eliciting the letter signed by 62 Catholic leaders in the United States raising concerns about Michael Novak’s visit to Rome. NCR ran a story on the letter Feb. 7, and the complete text is posted on the NCR web site.

     The rumor is false, as I have assured both Novak and the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson. I am a firm believer in the prime directive of journalism, which is that we report and analyze the news, but we don’t make it. Enough said.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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