VATICAN CITY — Faced with cataclysmic violence in the Middle East, which he terms a “piecemeal” World War III Pope Francis has not shied away from suggesting a major cause of deadly international conflict: financial interest.
To audiences ranging from Italian schoolchildren to the U.S. Congress, the Holy Father says arms merchants are the profiteers fueling war.
Responding to a question from a little girl visiting the Vatican last spring with thousands of other youngsters, Pope Francis declared, “This is serious. Some powerful people make their living with the production of arms and sell them to one country for them to use against another country ... It’s the industry of death, the greed that harms us all, the desire to have more money.”
He continued, “The economic system orbits around money and not men, women. ... So war is waged in order to defend money. This is why some people don’t want peace: They make more money from war, although wars make money but lose lives, health, education.”
Pope Francis made the same point in his speech to Congress: “Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”
And during daily Mass in the chapel at his residence in the St. Martha guesthouse two months ago, the Pope reiterated, “What shall remain in the wake of this war, in the midst of which we are living now? Ruins, thousands of children without education, so many innocent victims; and lots of money in the pockets of arms dealers.”
He continued, “A war can be justified, so to speak, with many, many reasons, but when all the world is as it is today, at war — piecemeal though that war may be — a little here, a little there and everywhere, there is no justification. And God weeps. Jesus weeps.”
Is the Holy Father stating a vague truism? Or does his conviction relate directly to turmoil in the Middle East? Let’s explore how Pope Francis’ analysis lines up with the unfolding tragedy in that region.
Arming the Middle East
According to the leading analyst of defense spending, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States is the world’s largest weapons merchant, furnishing 56% of all international arms sales.
In the Middle East, the U.S. provided 47% of the arms in 2014, the most recent year for this data. So it is unsurprising that Pope Francis had sharp words for Congress on arms sales.
On top of that, it’s well known that American weapons and vehicles are in the hands of the Islamic State group, captured from, or abandoned by, Iraqi forces — meaning the U.S. has indirectly supplied the terrorists.
What few probably realize is that weapons sales under President Barack Obama accelerated dramatically: In the Obama administration’s first five years, total arms sales exceeded the eight-year Bush administration total by $30 billion in just the first five years of the Obama presidency.
In a startling analysis by William Hartung, the respected weapons expert writes, “The majority of the Obama administration’s arms sales have gone to the Middle East and Persian Gulf, with Saudi Arabia topping the list at $46 billion in new agreements. This is particularly troubling given the complex array of conflicts raging throughout the region.”
Saudi Arabia increased spending on arms in 2014, more than any other country in the world. Saudi Arabia spent $81 billion on arms, 10% of its economy — a higher percentage than any country except Oman.
The biggest weapons dealer to Saudi Arabia was the United Kingdom, providing 36% of its 2010-2014 stockpile, followed closely by the U.S., supplying 35% of the Saudi kingdom’s purchases.
War on Yemeni Civilians
Saudi Arabia is a kingdom of 28 million people. What is it doing with all these arms?
For one thing, in 2015, it declared a particularly aggressive war on its southern neighbor, Yemen, a relatively tolerant country with baseline respect for religious freedom. The Holy See has had diplomatic relations with Yemen since 1998.
The Holy See has never established diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, created in 1935, largely because it refuses to allow religious freedom. To this day, in Saudi Arabia, it is illegal to own a Bible or to pray with others in your own home.
Tragically, Saudi Arabia has pursued this air campaign, highly dependent on U.S. and U.K. support. Among the sites hit by Saudi aerial bombing: a Catholic church in southern Yemen, one of the country’s few.
As Jesuit Father Samir Kahlil Samir asserts in a recent essay, “Saudi Arabia and Iran Battle for Dominion of Islamic World,” published by AsiaNews, Saudi Arabia’s aggression against Yemen is a manifestation of a widening religious war between Sunni Muslims, led by Saudi Arabia, and the Shiites, a minority branch of Islam, dominant in only four countries: Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan.
About 47% of Yemen’s population is Shiite or Zaidi Muslim, a branch of Shia.
Father Samir, a renowned scholar of Islam, considers Shiites to be “more open-minded, both in intellectual and critical terms.” He explains Shiite imams study philosophy, ancient history and science, for example, while Sunni imams memorize the Quran and reject books by “unbelievers.”
In a recent visit to Washington, Father Samir told the Register that Saudi Arabia is aggressively promoting an intolerant fundamentalist dogma, Wahhabism, which rejects the idea that the Quran can be interpreted, over time, through reason — despite a spirit of pluralism in the Islamic world from 1860 to 1950, which led to religious tolerance.
“Wahhabi ideology is the basis for Saudi Arabia’s brutal sharia [Islamic] law at home, where beheadings, crucifixions, stoning and other forms of public execution have become routine,” said Father Samir.
It was the Jan. 2 political execution of a Saudi citizen who was a Shiite ayatollah that led to a diplomatic rupture between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The Jesuit priest told the Register that Saudi Arabia spreads its ideology through money: funding Wahhabi mosques, imams and schools (madrassas) around the world, which is why Sunni fundamentalism is on the rise in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, where extremism is new.
Saudi Arabia has built more than 1,000 mosques around the world to promote Wahhabism. The kingdom plans to build some 200 mosques in Germany, where approximately 1 million Muslim migrants arrived in 2015.
Wahhabism Targets Christians
It is Wahhabi fundamentalism that fuels Islamic State radicalism, according to Father Samir, who also explains that the terrorist group was originally an anti-Shiite movement.
Other experts confirm the connection between Wahhabism and the intention to eliminate Christianity from the Middle East.
Abbas Kadhim, president of the Institute of Shia Studies and a fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, told the Register, “Wahhabi followers supported, throughout the Iraqi conflict, certain elements of insurgency to kill Christians. The Wahhabis saw an opportunity in Iraq and Syria to rid the area of Christians.”
How can the United States consider Saudi Arabia a close ally when it is exporting radical Islam and deadly intolerance for Christians? This question is increasingly being asked.
At a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the evolution of Islamic extremism, at least one member of Congress turned the focus on the role of Saudi Arabia in spreading Wahhabism.
And former Defense Department Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Atlantic Council last month that the White House has not had appropriate priorities in the Middle East.
He said President Obama allowed policy to be “paralyzed” by the goal of removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, when the real national security issue was, and is, the Islamic State. Hagel was one of the first national leaders to highlight the unique danger the group posed in 2014, calling it “an imminent threat to every interest we have.”
“Assad was never our enemy,” Hagel said flatly. He told al-Monitor.com that finding stability in Syria requires U.S. collaboration with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia — a scenario currently hard to imagine.
U.S. Approach Criticized
Pope Francis does not name names when he refers to arms, nor does he point to specific weapons transactions fueling war. Yet Catholics in the Middle East are virtually unanimous in pointing to the negative influence of U.S. military engagement in the region.
One Caritas official in Lebanon shook his head in amazement as he recounted, “We had a group of American-Catholic journalists visit. They simply couldn’t believe how many people say, ‘Daesh [Arabic name for the Islamic State] was armed by the U.S. military.’ Even a nun in a refugee camp said that. It’s common knowledge here, but shocking for Americans.”
Republican President Dwight David Eisenhower famously warned about arms and national interest.
He coined the phrase “military-industrial complex” in his January 1961 farewell address to describe the increased power of two related interests: the arms industry and the U.S. military establishment.
As a five-star general in the U.S. Army who helped win World War II, Eisenhower obviously admired the military, but he was leery of the potential risk for a confluence of these two powers to undermine democracy.
Eisenhower said, “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the federal government. … In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Senior Register correspondent Victor Gaetan is an award-winning
international correspondent and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.