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Scrutinizing the World in ‘98: Pope Finds Reason for Hope and Concern

In a sweeping 40-minute address, John Paul II delivers strong words on everything from the Algerian massacres to genetic engineering

BY Stephen Banyra

January 18-24, 1998 Issue | Posted 1/18/98 at 2:00 PM

 

VATICAN CITY—Pope John Paul II told diplomats he hopes his trip to communist Cuba this week will help the island nation's citizens achieve a “more just and united” homeland.

In his annual “State of the World” address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, the Pope said he hoped the first-ever papal visit to Cuba will give him an opportunity to strengthen “not only the courageous Catholics of that country but also all their fellow citizens” in realizing their legitimate aspirations.

The nearly 40-minute speech Jan. 10 in the Vatican marked the Pope's yearly review of successes and setbacks around the globe. He delivered it in French to representatives of more than 165 countries that have diplomatic ties with the Holy See.

The Pontiff's comments on Cuba were the first in which he has spoken so specifically about what he believes his historic trip Jan. 21—25 may achieve.

The Vatican hopes the landmark visit will lead to genuine dialogue between communist authorities and the Catholic Church and to greater religious, personal, and political freedoms for Cubans. It has welcomed some recent openings by Cuban leader Fidel Castro, but views them as “one-off gestures” connected to the visit and is seeking permanent concessions.

In December, the Cuban government granted a public holiday for Christmas for the first time in 28 years. Castro also held his first formal meeting for 12 years with the island's Catholic hierarchy, led by the archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

The Pope's annual “world review” generally is considered to be among his most important speeches of the year. It is followed closely in ambassadorial circles because it suggests a blueprint of the Holy See's diplomatic initiatives for the new year.

In this year's address, Pope John Paul II also turned his thoughts to another communist regime, China, saying he was hoping for “the establishment of more friendly relations with the Holy See” to help believers there.

“This would enable Chinese Catholics to live their faith fully inserted into the communion of the whole Church as she approaches the Great Jubilee,” he said.

The government-controlled Patriotic Catholic Church does not acknowledge the supremacy of the Holy See, forcing Roman Catholics in China to worship clandestinely. Clergy loyal to the Pope risk arrest and imprisonment.

Speaking of other Asian concerns, the Pope turned his attention to economics, calling for “serious reflection on the morality of the economic and financial markets” currently in turmoil. He said the region needs “greater sensitivity to social justice,” noting that those most affected by the recent collapse of Asia's tiger economies are the countries' ordinary citizens.

PEACE BUILDING EFFORTS

Yet all was not bleak in his new year's review—Pope John Paul II praised initiatives for dialogue in Northern Ireland and the two Koreas and the “more or less relative peace” holding in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“We cannot but encourage the resumption of dialogue between the parties that for so many years have been opposed to one another in Northern Ireland,” he said. “May all parties have the courage to persevere in order to overcome present perils, there, as in other regions of Europe.”

As for Bosnia, the Pope urged the international community to help the return of refugees to their homes and to ensure respect for the fundamental rights of the three ethnic communities that make up the country. He said these are “preconditions necessary for the vitality of the country,” adding that his “unforgettable pastoral visit to Sarajevo last spring” made him even more clearly aware of this.

The Pope also applauded peace talks being held in Geneva between North and South Korea. The discussions aimed at formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War, he said, could “considerably reduce tension in the whole region.”

In addition, the John Paul hailed the international treaty banning anti-personnel land mines, signed by more than 120 nations last month in Ottawa. The Vatican, he said, was preparing to ratify the accord soon.

The land mine treaty and several environmental issues discussed by the world community during the past year showed an “increase of sensitivity,” the Pope said, to humanity's role as “stewards of creation.” He said this also corresponded to the conviction that “true happiness can only come about when we work with one another, not against one another.”

TROUBLE SPOTS

First on the Pope's list of “crisis spots” was Algeria. He pulled no punches in denouncing ongoing massacres, reportedly by Islamic extremists, which this month alone have left more than 1,000 people dead.

“We see a whole country held hostage to inhuman violence that no political, far less religious motivation, could legitimize,” the Pope said in one of the speech's most forceful passages.

He told Algerian Islamic fundamentalists bluntly: “I insist on repeating clearly to all once again that no one may kill in God's name: this is to misuse the divine name and to blaspheme.”

Muslim rebels in Algeria have led a six-year insurgency in a bid to topple the country's military-backed government. The Pope called for “people of good will, in that country and elsewhere,” to support those who believe in dialogue.

The 77-year-old Pontiff, now in the 20th year of his history-making reign, was also unequivocal in his condemnation of the United Nations embargo against Iraq. He branded the sanctions, imposed on Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, as “pitiless.”

“I must call upon the consciences of those who, in Iraq and elsewhere, put political, economic, or strategic considerations before the fundamental good of the people and I ask them to show compassion.”

Reiterating his strong calls against the use of embargoes as weapons, he said: “The weak and the innocent cannot pay for mistakes for which they are not responsible.”

He prayed that Iraq would be able “to regain its dignity [and] experience normal development….”

John Paul also warned that Middle East peace “is practically at a standstill” and vowed that the Holy See would keep up efforts at dialogue with all sides.

“My thoughts turn at this time to all those—Israelis and Palestinians—who in recent years had hoped that justice, security, peace, and a normal everyday life would finally dawn on this holy land,” he said. “The Holy See maintains a constant concern for this part of the world and it conducts its activity in accordance with the principles that have always guided it.”

Pope John Paul II said he prays daily that Jerusalem, together with Bethlehem and Nazareth, will become “a place of justice and peace where Jews, Christians, and Muslims will finally be able to walk together before God.”

Turning his attention to Africa, the Pope urged a sense of self-reliance so that Africans “not rely on outside assistance for everything.”

John Paul called for solidarity among the continent's leaders to foster peace and development. He drew special attention to the plight of those in Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Congo Republic—where brutal ethnic conflict has resulted in millions of refugees and displaced persons, and widespread disease.

“If violent attainment of power becomes the norm,” the Pope said, “if insistence on ethnic considerations continues to override all other concerns, if democratic representation is systematically put aside, if corruption and the arms trade continue to rage, then Africa will never experience peace or development, and future generations will mercilessly judge these pages of African history.”

SANCTITY OF LIFE

Pope John Paul II's final appeal was for respect around the globe for the dignity of human life.

“When the handicapped and the elderly are seen as an encumbrance,” he said, when children to be born are seen as an intrusion into people's lives, then abortion and euthanasia “rapidly come to be seen as acceptable solutions.”

He also had strong words for societies grappling with how to handle genetic engineering and other new scientific frontiers: “When man runs the risk of being regarded as an object that can be manipulated or made subject to one's will, when one no longer sees the image of God in man … then anything is possible, and barbarism is not far away.”

The Pontiff concluded his discourse with a prayer for peace in 1998: “May Almighty God help each of us to forge new paths where people may meet and walk together. This is the prayer that I raise to God each day for the whole of humanity, that it may be ever more worthy of this name.”

Stephen Banyra writes from Rome.