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 The Word From Rome

September 10, 2004
Vol. 4, No. 3

global perspective


"There are two superpowers today, the United States and world opinion. We religious leaders are the chaplains to world opinion."

Robert Edgar,
general secretary of the National Council of the Churches

Unpopularity of Bush administration runs deep internationally; The horrors of Belsan; Martino on terrorism; The 'parish priest and Communist mayor'; John Paul's trip to Loreto


George Bush may be pulling ahead in the American polls, but he doesn't seem to be winning many hearts and minds overseas, at least to judge by this week's inter-religious gathering in Milan organized by the Community of Sant'Egidio.

To whatever extent the 7,000 delegates gathered here, and the 150 religious leaders from around the world they came to hear, are representative of global opinion, they seemed strikingly critical of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and its fallout, as well as the broader drift of U.S. foreign policy.

The inter-religious congress, which this year carried the theme "The Courage of a New Humanism," is an annual continuation of Pope John Paul's 1986 gathering with religious leaders in Assisi to pray for peace. This year's version took place in Milan Sept. 5-7, with some sessions at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart and others at the Marriott.

Sant'Egidio is one of the Catholic church's "new movements," founded in 1968 by Catholic youth in Rome who wanted to combine social activism with spiritual seriousness. Today it numbers more than 40,000 members in 60 countries.

It's not that Sant'Egidio deliberately stacked the deck with anti-American opinion. For one thing, the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson, was part of a Sept. 6 panel on the HIV/AIDS crisis. Jack De Goia, president of Georgetown University, was on a round table about globalization. (I was also invited to speak, on the media). Neither would it be fair to say that Iraq dominated the three-day congress, since there were 36 panels on a staggering variety of topics, including beauty, bioethics, Northern Ireland and "Japanese religious humanism."

It was inevitable, however, in discussing the global situation that Iraq would surface. It did so most prominently in a Sept. 6 session on "Iraq: Between Present and Future," with four Iraqis: Jawad Al-Khalisi of the Iraqi Refoundation Congress; Mahdi Mahdi Al-Khalisi, rector of the "City of Science of Baghdad" University; Muhammad Bashar Sharif, spokesperson for the Council of the Ulema, an association of Sunni clerics; and Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduin of Baghdad.

Jawad Al-Khalisi went first, accusing U.S. forces of suppressing legitimate dissent with the use of lethal force. He offered a series of examples, including an incident in Fallujah on April 28, 2003, which he claimed to have witnessed, in which he said peaceful protestors were shot by American forces. He also pointed to an incident on March 15, 2004, in which he said coalition forces refused permission for Iraqis who had fled to Syria to escape fighting to reenter the country, leaving them stranded at dangerous checkpoints until they finally went back to Syria. Among those turned back, he said, was a group of disabled children.

"We see the killing of civilians for no reason," Al-Khalisi said, "the torture of prisoners, the bombing of civilian residences, the invasion of private homes. … There is a lack of value for human rights.

"We're in a continual state of grievance," he said. "Iraqis have started to hate the democracy wanted by the Americans," he said.

Al-Khalisi asserted he could offer "10,000 examples" of such abuses by coalition forces.

Next up was Sharif, who called the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq a "dirty war," offering three reasons. First, he said, it was against the will of the international community. Second, he said, there is still no evidence of weapons of mass destruction, which had been the ostensible justification for the invasion. Third, he said, Americans are making the same mistakes as Saddam Hussein, such as constricting democracy and repressing dissent.

Sharif charged that depleted uranium left in Iraq by American military forces after the first Gulf War had caused more deaths in the country than Saddam Hussein's use of chemical and biological weapons. He also complained that American repression of opposition was more brutal than under Hussein's regime. After his speech, I asked him if he was in effect saying that the Americans were worse than Hussein.

"Without any doubt," he said flatly. "The Americans are more dictatorial than Hussein was. I think they graduated from the same school."

Warduni, the lone Catholic on the panel, picked up Sharif's vocabulary, saying progress can come only with dialogue.

"Not with the war, the dirty war, that has brought us so much damage," he said, triggering applause.

"Why the war?" Warduni asked rhetorically. "There was no good reason, except for the interests of petroleum and maybe Israel." That line too drew applause.

Similarly critical views were echoed in other venues at the congress. During Q&A following the panel on AIDS, Nicholson drew a hostile question on Iraq from an Orthodox bishop. During an afternoon session on globalization, an Italian academic named Vera Negri Zamagni criticized the way she believes the Bush administration has undercut international law and the United Nations.

Reflecting on what I'd heard, I asked a senior figure in Sant'Egidio if my impression was correct that in a hypothetical straw poll of this crowd Kerry would beat Bush in a landslide, and his one-word answer was: "Clearly."

It's fair to wonder to what extent the Sant'Egidio gathering represents broader currents of thought, either in the world at large or within religious circles. Sant'Egidio has a center-left profile, and attracts a kind of Italian Catholic who sometimes doesn't have much love lost for the United States. In the ecumenical world, Sant'Egidio is best connected with dialogue experts, which usually means people who lean to the left of their denominations. Sant'Egidio is aware of this reputation and has moved mountains to attract a more representative set of voices, not just from Islam but also from Orthodoxy, Judaism and other traditions. At the end of the day, however, their sympathy tends to be with the progressives. Hence the Sant'Egidio congress is probably best viewed as a sounding board for what moderate-to-liberal religious believers from a variety of traditions are thinking.

In the short run, Bush's unpopularity here has little political importance, since the overwhelming majority of these people aren't Americans and hence won't be voting in November. Yet it may be a harbinger of challenges to come. If Bush wins a second term he'll have to govern, and that means among other things dealing with the rest of the world -- at least part of which, judging by the Sant'Egidio sample, is not exactly clamoring for four more years.

* * *

The tragedy in Beslan, Russia, was much on people's minds in Milan. The most dramatic references came in a session with Feofan Ashurkov, the Orthodox bishop whose Stavropol diocese includes the town of Beslan. By coincidence, he had been invited to the congress months ago.

Commenting on the brutality of those who commandeered the school, Feofan said that when a pediatrician arrived and asked permission to check on the children, the response came back that he could enter but he would not come out alive.

"They put a wire in the gym, and attached children and grenades to the wire, as if it were a kind of wreath," he said. "They also mined the entire perimeter."

Feofan described some of the horrors the children in the school experienced.

"They killed the men first, and forced the older children to throw the corpses of their parents out the window," he said.

The bishop said he was asked by authorities to wait in an operations center, but became frustrated and returned to the school. Just as he got there, he said, the shooting started.

"I saw a naked teenager, with a bloody leg, who couldn't stand up on his own," he said. "I literally took him in my arms and put him in my car. Exactly in that moment, one of the soldiers next to me who was fighting against the terrorists was hit by a bullet and fell."

"I took the young man to the hospital and came back. At the time, the shooting had dropped off, and I saw something terrible that I will probably never forget," he said. "Because of the bombs the terrorists had placed, a roof had collapsed and caught fire. The majority of the children who died were killed by this explosion. I saw those little burned bodies, one on top of the other … what I felt! It was a profound feeling of suffering and sadness."

In the hospital, Feofan said, the doctors told him that most of the children who were wounded had been hit in the back, because the terrorists shot at them as they tried to run away.

"These were not men," Feofan said of the terrorists. "Only devils masquerading as men could carry out such misdeeds."

Feofan's agony was obvious.

"The first thing I said to the people is to ask forgiveness," he said. "I'm also guilty. Maybe this happened because I prayed badly, or not enough."

Now, he said, the challenge is not letting this violence breed further tragedy.

"The most important thing is to save the people from uncontrolled rage," he said. "We have to avoid ethnic conflict," referring to generalized anger about Muslims.

* * *

I had a chance to sit down with Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, on the sidelines of the Milan congress. Martino was an outspoken opponent of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

At the congress, Martino spoke on terrorism.

"We are facing a Fourth World War," Martino said, both in our interview and in his speech. "It's different from other wars, which had a political logic, rules for conduct, certain ends in mind, and so on. This is a war we fight at home, and it requires an utterly new approach."

"We have to identify the causes," Martino said. "What provokes terrorism? Why? Until we have the answer, and until we try to address these causes, terrorism cannot be defeated."

In the case of the violence in Russia, Martino told me that the international community needs to ask itself why no one spoke more forcefully in recent years about the crisis in Chechnya.

I pressed him, suggesting that surely no "cause" can explain what we saw in Beslan.

"We have to understand why they did that," Martino said. "These terrible acts are never random. They're always motivated by something."

But, I insisted, some observers would say that when you're dealing with "devils masquerading as human beings," as Feofan put it, no amount of reasoning will make any difference.

"If a madman attacks me, obviously I have the right to defend myself. Society has the right to defend itself, in the way it has always done when dealing with madmen," Martino said. "I've never said that there must be no use of force, and I've never called for the abolition of the use of arms."

Has Beslan made Martino more sympathetic to the Bush administration's case for "preemptive" strikes?

"How do you prevent an act of madness?" Martino responded. "If you can't identify who the terrorists are, what do you do? They are in states. We know there are terrorists in Italy, for example. Are you going to therefore invade Italy? They're everywhere, they're in America."

Instead, Martino said, the responsible course of action is enhanced intelligence and surveillance leading to much more limited police actions intended to capture, and then try, those actually responsible for terrorist acts.

That alone, however, is insufficient, Martino said.

"We have to look for the motivations, the causes that make a terrorist," he said. "We have to go to the roots."

* * *

Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of the Churches and one of the leading figures in American Protestantism, is a former six-term Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, and it shows. After his talk at the Milan congress, Edgar confidently predicted to me that George Bush would lose in November. This despite the fact, he said, that there is no Democratic Party in the United States anymore -- only differing shades of Republicans, with what Edgar called "a little, medium or big R."

Just goes to show, perhaps, that you can take the man out of politics, but not the politics out of the man.

In an interview, I asked Edgar about the critical voices in Milan with respect to American foreign policy.

"I share their concern," he said. "The administration is wrong on preemptive force and it was wrong on the invasion of Iraq."

"There are two superpowers today, the United States and world opinion. We religious leaders are the chaplains to world opinion. What I hear is a sense of urgency that the United States has to model different behavior."

"On international law, human rights, international courts, the environment, conduct that's respectful of all nations and not unilateral, we're moving in the wrong direction."

So why is Bush up in the polls?

"I think of this like the civil rights movement," he said, "where initially the leaders were way out in front of the people, but the people eventually caught up."

I asked Edgar about the controversy in American Catholicism over communion for pro-choice candidates. He said he has discussed it at length with Mario Cuomo, the former New York governor.

"It's fair game for Catholic bishops to have their opinions, but God can make choices as to what's right and wrong," Edgar said. "I think it's outrageous to have a litmus test for who sits at the table."

"Why not have the same test for capital punishment?" he asked. "There are a lot of other potential test items in Scripture that could be used."

* * *

When people suffer, they tend to look for someone to blame, and when the obvious candidates don't suffice, they will often be drawn to speculation about invisible forces. We heard several of these conspiracy theories in Milan.

Israel is a favorite bête noire for fevered imaginations, and several speakers, including Warduni, suggested that the U.S-led invasion of Iraq had been orchestrated to serve Israeli interests in the Middle East. If not Israel, then mammoth oil companies were popular candidates.

Warduni had another theory. I asked him about the climate for Christians in Iraq following the recent church bombings, and he pointed out that Christians are leaving all over the Arab world … Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, and the Holy Land. To explain the phenomenon, Warduni said he sees "a general plot to empty the Middle East of Christians."

A plot orchestrated by whom?

In Milan, Warduni wouldn't say. Just days earlier in Rimini, however, at the annual Comunione e Liberazione gathering, he had attributed it to radical Islamic forces and to "Zionism," meaning, once again, Israel.

Sharif, spokesperson for the Council of the Ulema in Iraq, had perhaps the most imaginative theory. Asked by a French journalist about her two colleagues being held in Iraq, Sharif expressed the view that this kidnapping had not been carried out by genuine elements of the Iraqi resistance. Instead, Sharif said, he believes the kidnapping had been orchestrated by "outside forces hostile to France's position" -- code words for some group linked to the Americans.

Whatever the merit of any of these claims, perhaps they at least help to illustrate the depth of the frustration in the region.

* * *

In the 1950s, Italy's favorite film series was "Don Camillo and Peppone," about a parish priest and Communist mayor, respectively, of a small Italian town. The two men were eternal rivals, yet with a grudging tenderness that made it clear neither one really wanted to destroy the other.

If Italian Catholicism has a modern version of Don Camillo and Peppone, it might well be Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees, and Alberto Melloni, a prominent church historian and senior figure in the John XXIII Institute in Bologna.

Along with Giuseppe Alberigo, Melloni has been responsible for an influential multi-volume history of Vatican II (published in English by Joseph Komonchak at the Catholic University of America). That series has helped enshrine what Marchetto sees as a dubious "liberal" reading of the Second Vatican Council, and he rarely misses an opportunity to challenge it.

Melloni was on a panel about globalization, delivering a historical analysis of the Catholic church's capacity to galvanize resistance to global trends. He expressed doubt, observing that historically the church has sometimes acted as a "chaplain of the status quo." Marchetto was not on the panel, but he was in the audience, and he offered a vigorous rebuttal.

Melloni had pointed to the record of Catholic missionaries, prompting Marchetto to point out that he himself spent 20 years in Africa. "I think the Africans can distinguish between colonizers and missionaries," he said. "The missionaries brought an extraordinary humanism to Africa."

Marchetto also challenged Melloni on liberation theology, insisting that the version of that movement enchanted with Marxism lacked a proper Christian anthropology.

I happened to be seated near Marchetto, and went up to say hello afterwards. I was standing with him when Melloni approached, and the two chatted amiably, even using the familiar Italian tu rather than the more formal Lei. A bemused Melloni later told me that Marchetto is a "very nice guy."

Would that all debates in the church could be carried on this way.

* * *

My own presentation in Milan focused on "The Media between War and Peace," and I suggested there was a hidden agenda implicit in that title -- that journalists should promote peace and oppose war. Like other instances of the road to Hell being paved with good intentions, I said, this sounds terrific but leads to danger. The moment a journalist begins selling something, whether it's world peace or Coca-Cola, I'd start double-checking his or her copy.

That said, I believe the mass media often doesn't do justice to stories about conflict -- not because we fail to do good, but because we fail to do good journalism. First, our "herd mentality" means we all do the same story, rather than branching out and getting on top of conflicts before they develop; second our dependence on visual images makes us captives to access to news scenes, which leads to choices such as "embedding" correspondents with the military; third, we cover war much better than peace, meaning that creative efforts to promote healing and understanding pass largely unseen.

* * *

John Paul's last trip outside Rome of 2004 brought him to yet another Marian shrine, this one in Loreto, Italy, for the first-ever international gathering of Catholic Action. The pope took a helicopter from his summer residence at Castelgandolfo on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 5, and returned the same way that evening.

An enthusiastic crowd of some 300,000 greeted the pope in Loreto, located near Ancona on Italy's Adriatic coast. Paola Bignardi, the first female president of Catholic Action, greeted the pope. (Bignardi has had a big couple of weeks; recently she was in Rimini, engineering an historic "reconciliation" with Catholic Action's longtime rival, Comunione e Liberazione).

Loreto is famed as the home of the "holy house of Nazareth," regarded as Mary's own childhood home. This makes Loreto among the more intriguing stops on a Marian itinerary, if only because of the unapologetically miraculous nature of the devotion -- one traditional belief is that angels transported the house here in 1294. More prosaic scholarly types, however, say the stones may have come over by ship, thanks to the intervention of a noble family called Angeli, meaning "angels," that ruled Epirus.

(A footnote: There are actually multiple "houses of Mary," meaning dwellings in which it's believed that Mary lived. Ephesus, for example, and Jerusalem both claim to have houses of Mary from later stages of her life, though most scholars seem dubious about Ephesus. Tersato in Dalmatia, meanwhile, has a shrine commemorating the passage of the "Holy House" on its way to Loreto.)

The 84-year-old John Paul seemed in relatively good form, speaking for the most part in a clear voice, even distributing the Eucharist to a long line of communicants. This is usually a good indicator of the pope's condition, since it's an activity handlers can eliminate if they sense the pope is tiring.

The pope read roughly 700 words from his 1,100-word homily, entrusting the middle section to his sostituto, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri. John Paul was interrupted 13 times by applause, sometimes for the content of what he said, sometimes as a form of encouragement when his breathing became especially labored and he seemed to be struggling to continue.

As always, John Paul arrived at the Mass site near the shrine in the popemobile, accompanied by the local bishop, Archbishop Angelo Comastri, and by his private secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dzwisz. The latter could be forgiven if he took his eyes more than normal off his boss along the way, sneaking a peak at the surroundings. Loreto is a territorial prelature, not a diocese, and before Comastri, the last two men in charge were former private secretaries of popes -- Loris Capovilla, who served Pope John XXIII, and Pasquale Macchi, the secretary of Paul VI.

The visit was an enormous shot in the arm for Catholic Action, a group that has sometimes felt a bit estranged under the pontificate of John Paul II.

The pope declared three new beati associated with Catholic Action, raising to 1,331 the number he has beatified over the course of his pontificate.

Pina Suriano, a Sicilian, was born in 1915, and at the tender age of 12 became a member of Catholic Action. She became president of the young women's branch. In 1932, when she was only 17, she took a personal vow of chastity. (Her mother is said to have wept at all the offers of marriage she turned down). Later she wanted to become a nun, but various attempts failed. Sensing that her health was not good, she decided to "offer herself" as a victim for the sanctification of priests, and in March 1948 she suffered severe rheumatoid arthritis that almost killed her. She died two years later, in 1950, of a heart attack. There was an immense turnout of mourners, testament to her reputation for sanctity.

Alberto Marvelli was an Italian engineer and politician who died at the age of 28. He was educated by the Salesians in Rimini, and won fame for his service to the poor during and after World War II. He was a member of the executive committee of the Christian Democratic party, which was more or less the official political option of the Catholic church in post-war Italy. He died after being accidentally run down by a truck.

Fr. Pedro Tarrés i Claret was both a medical doctor and a priest who was dedicated to Catholic Action in Barcellona, Spain. As a physician he was noted for his work among the poor; he once defined a sick person as "a symbol of the suffering Christ." Tarrés i Claret was struck with a debilitating illness, and died in 1950.

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

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