In scanning the confusing array of conflict today in the Middle East and North Africa, one thing is certain: President George W. Bush should have listened to St. John Paul II, who beseeched his administration, and other Western leaders, not to invade Iraq in 2003.
The Holy See feared three things would happen: An invasion would destabilize the region; it would put 2,000-year-old Christian communities at grave, existential risk; and it would provoke Islamic extremism.
As then-Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano asked in 2003: “We want to say to America: Is it worth it to you? Won’t you have, afterward, decades of hostility in the Islamic world?”
And so, it has come to pass.
By looking at some key stands taken by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI with regard to the Middle East, we can understand better both the regional challenges facing Vatican diplomats today and what informs Pope Francis’ response.
Each of our last three popes, building one on the other, has employed and promoted dialogue and diplomacy to tame conflict in Christianity’s homeland.
St. John Paul II was committed to non-military solutions to regime change when looking at dictators such as Saddam Hussein.
He foresaw the negative impact of American hubris because the Holy See’s assessment of Muslim perceptions was more accurate than Washington’s wishful thinking that, once rid of Hussein (a member of Iraq’s Sunni minority who governed by repressing the Shiite majority), Iraq would forget historical rivalries and internecine political grievances to embrace secular democracy.
John Paul was constantly engaged in various Middle-East peace efforts, so he knew how volatile the place was — and is.
In Damascus, Syria, in May 2001, St. John Paul II became the first pope to visit a mosque.
As he entered the Umayyad mosque — also the site of St John the Baptist’s tomb — St. John Paul II kissed a Quran as a sign of respect for Islam and its people, a theme captured in his address when he used a family metaphor to describe relations between the two faith groups.
Speaking in English, the Pope said, “In Syria, Christians and Muslims have lived side by side for centuries, and a rich dialogue of life has gone on unceasingly. Every individual and every family knows moments of harmony and other moments when dialogue has broken down. The positive experiences must strengthen our communities in the hope of peace; and the negative experiences should not be allowed to undermine that hope.”
During the visit, the Pope recited the Creed together with an Orthodox patriarch of Antioch, underscoring another objective: strengthening ecumenical bonds between Catholics and Orthodox, especially those living in Muslim-majority countries.
The saint even prayed at a decimated Greek Orthodox church in Quneitra, a town in the Golan Heights destroyed by Israel during the wars of 1967 and 1973, proclaiming, “May all believers find the courage to forgive one another, so that the wounds of the past may be healed and not be a pretext for further suffering in the present.”
All these divides — between Catholics and Orthodox, Christians and Muslims, Arabs and Jews — can be overcome through forgiveness and diligent efforts at dialogue, premised on mutual respect, St. John Paul II explained in words and actions.
Iran and Shiite Muslims
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad greeted the Pope in 2001. Although the president’s anti-Israel rhetoric during welcoming remarks was considered inappropriate, the meeting signified good relations between the Holy See and Assad’s regime, dominated by Alawites, a Shiite sect allied with Iran.
Then as now, the Syria-Iran alliance is premised on identity of both regimes with the Shiite branch of Islam, which represents 10%-13% of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. Most Shiites live in four countries: Iran, Pakistan, India and Iraq.
The Sunni-Shiite split dates back to the seventh century and turns on the question of Muhammad’s successor. For centuries, relations between the two groups were relatively calm, but war in Iraq served to reignite a violent sectarian feud.
St. John Paul II had been pope just three months when the shah of Iran fled and the Iranian Revolution declared a new Islamic republic in early 1979. The U.S. broke all ties with the country in April 1980, four months after radical students seized the U.S. embassy and took 66 hostages.
The Holy See, however, maintained diplomatic relations with Iran, and, through the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, initiated talks at a high level with Tehran in 1995, which continued for 20 years.
Shiite practice in Iran has certain similarities with Catholicism: its clergy (attributed with spiritual authority that Sunni clerics don’t have) are organized hierarchically, led by a supreme leader, with authority over religious and state affairs. The supreme leader is elected (or dismissed) by an 88-member council of experts. Unlike the College of Cardinals, though, the experts are popularly elected.
Elements of Shiite belief also resemble aspects of Catholic faith.
Shiites venerate Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein, who was brutally martyred at the Battle of Karbala in 680. Every year, Shiites commemorate Hussein’s sacrifice on the holy day of Asura. In Iran, some flagellate themselves to suffer as Hussein did.
All Muslims venerate Mary, as the mother of Jesus, who is the most often-mentioned woman in the Quran, but Shiite Muslims are also devoted to a central mother figure: Fatima (known as al-Zahra, the Shining One), daughter of Muhammad, wife of Imam Ali and mother of Imam Hussein.
To strengthen the Church’s relationship with Islam, St. John Paul II met Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami, then serving as chairman of the Islamic Conference of 54 counties, at the Vatican in 1999. It was the first European trip for an Iranian leader since the revolution.
President Khatami told the Pope, “The hope is for the final victory of monotheism, ethics and morality, together with peace and reconciliation,” adding, “May God protect you.”
As a result of continuous dialogue — and 12 years of work by Iranian translators — the Catholic Catechism is now available in Farsi, and Catholic classics such as St. Augustine’s Confessions can be found in Iranian bookstores.
When St. John Paul II became Holy Father in 1978, civil war raged in Lebanon.
He spent time and extensive effort assuring the uniquely multi-confessional country (where Christian-Muslim power sharing is embedded in the constitution) preserve its independence and political unity, which it did.
The saint spoke publicly about Lebanon more than 300 times. He convened a special synod of the country’s bishops in Rome in 1995, which led to an apostolic exhortation, “A New Hope for Lebanon.” His first trip to the Middle East was to Beirut in 1997, where hundreds of thousands, of all faiths, gathered on a landfill of war debris to hear his message of reconciliation and change.
According to Gilberte Doummar, a Lebanese woman active in the Focolore movement, who represented Lebanon on the Pontifical Council for the Laity under Pope John Paul II, as the new pope stood on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 16, 1978, the day of his election, he saw a sign that read, “Holy Father, Save Lebanon,” which struck his heart, and then the sign disappeared. Later, before the Eucharist, he asked God to let him live long enough to save Lebanon.
Israel and Palestine
Promoting reconciliation with the Jewish faith was a hallmark of St. John Paul II’s papacy.
He established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1993; was the first pope to speak in a synagogue and to visit a concentration camp, Auschwitz, in his native Poland; and apologized on behalf of the Catholic Church for not speaking out against the Holocaust (without criticizing Pope Pius XII) in the 1998 document, “We Remember: Reflection on the Shoah.”
At the same time, he supported establishment of an independent state for Palestine and did not waver on the need to consider Jerusalem an international city, in light of its significance to Islam and Christianity as well as Judaism, a position the Church took in 1947.
Pope Benedict XVI continued his predecessor’s policies in the Middle East, in deed and doctrine.
He continued to rue negative fallout from the U.S. invasion, lamenting on Easter 2007, “In the Middle East … unfortunately, nothing positive comes from Iraq, torn apart by continual slaughter as the civil population flees.”
As tensions between the U.S. and Iran escalated in 2006 over Iran’s nuclear program and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s apparent belligerence, the Pope met at the Vatican with the British prime minister, the German chancellor and Iran’s foreign minister to counsel dialogue. Time magazine went so far as to report Iran’s strategy was to use the Vatican to protect it from Western military intervention.
Like St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict continued to advocate for an independent Palestinian state. President Mahmoud Abbas even awarded him the first Bethlehem passport, which includes the citation “the bearer of this passport is a citizen of Bethlehem … [who] will remain a true friend to Bethlehem through its imprisonment.” In 2006, the Vatican condemned Israeli attacks on southern Lebanon, as violations against a “free and sovereign nation.”
But relations between the Vatican and Islamic leaders were temporarily derailed as a result of a 2006 lecture Pope Benedict gave in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who criticized Muhammad’s use of violence to spread Islam. Muslim misunderstanding of the Pope’s remarks prompted rioting from the West Bank to Somalia, where the murder of a nun and her bodyguard was attributed to the discourse.
To recover decades worth of progress — since the 1965 Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate, which called for more Catholic-Muslim rapprochement — the Vatican quickly configured a trip to Turkey to highlight Benedict’s respect for Islam.
The Holy Father visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, visibly praying by the side of the grand mufti, in a gesture that impressed the Muslim world. (Benedict also visited the largest mosque in Jordan in 2009.)
Benedict continued to use diplomatic channels to maintain engagement with Muslim leaders, even meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2007, the first papal meeting with a leader of the kingdom. The Vatican does not have diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, largely due to its lack of religious freedom.
Deepening ties with Orthodox Christians was one of Pope Benedict’s greatest achievements during his eight-year papacy, a development that made Benedict especially sensitive to the perceptions and fears of non-Catholic Christians in the Middle East who were increasingly under siege.
In Syria, in particular, as the country descended into chaos beginning in 2010, Christians largely aligned themselves with the Assad regime, against a range of opposition factions and extremists bent on wiping Christianity out of the region altogether.
The current Holy Father was met with complex conflagrations upon his election. Within six months, he was compelled to hold a global prayer vigil on behalf of Syria, calling for “forgiveness, dialogue, reconciliation — these are the words of peace, in beloved Syria, in the Middle East, in all the world!”
Besides being guided by the Holy Spirit, the Bible and the magisterium, Pope Francis’ response is grounded in almost 40 years of regional relationship-building inherited from his predecessors.
When the Vatican formally recognized the state of Palestine last June, it was on the basis of commitments and negotiation stretching back to the 1990s.
The Iran deal is also an agreement anticipated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops a full year before it happened: Three U.S. bishops issued a joint declaration against weapons of mass destruction in 2014 with clerics from the Supreme Council of the Seminary Teachers of Qom, the country’s leading center of religious scholarship.
Responding to existential challenges, Vatican diplomacy is successfully engaged behind the scenes and taking up issues that appear, lately, to be inspiring even the U.S. government to acknowledge the religious dimension of diplomacy, not only the economic and security aspects of international relations.
As the new year brings a new opportunity for peace negotiations around Syria, sponsored by the United Nations, Catholics need to pray for St. John Paul II’s intercession as our current Holy Father courageously confronts chaos in the Middle East.
Senior Register correspondent Victor Gaetan is an award-winning
international correspondent and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.