Pope Francis Confronts ‘Piecemeal’ World War III in the Middle East

NEWS ANALYSIS: Vatican Sees Iran Deal as the model and fears Syrian people have been forgotten.

Pope Francis meets with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Vatican City on Jan. 26.
Pope Francis meets with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Vatican City on Jan. 26. (photo: L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis stands on the shoulders of giants — his two predecessors — when it comes to confronting carnage in the Middle East, relying on public dialogue and quiet diplomacy to advance the main goal: peace. 

What St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI did not have to face head-on is what the Holy Father often refers to as a “piecemeal” version of World War III.

Although the new year is just a babe, we already have dramatically good — and bad — news from the “piecemeal” front lines.

At the heart of the Middle-East conundrum is Syria, a conflict that has evolved into a proxy war: a clash of international interests, mainly Saudi Arabia and Iran.

United Nations-sponsored diplomatic talks regarding Syria were supposed to reopen in Geneva on Monday, but they have been postponed, although Secretary of State John Kerry still thinks negotiations will resume by the end of the month.

Pope Francis told ambassadors to the Holy See in an annual new-year greeting he is hopeful about “important steps” made by the international community for a political solution in Syria, as well as progress made in Libya.

By listening to trusted Vatican representatives and allies in the field, we learn more about what the Holy See believes — and fears.


Success in Iran

The nuclear agreement in Iran is an important victory for dialogue, according to the Vatican.

In Iran, in recent weeks, we’ve seen the fruit of negotiation — the Church’s favored approach involving encounter, over time, which serves to humanize antagonists in each other’s eyes.

As the result of more positive relations between the U.S. and Iran, the two were able to quickly defuse a potential naval catastrophe (think of the Russian jet blown out of the sky by Turkey for possibly nudging into Turkish airspace last month) and proceed with a long-awaited prisoner exchange.

Despite some American political rhetoric to the contrary, this is what success looks like, if your goal is, indeed, regional peace.

And with regard to Iran’s agreement with the West to disarm nuclear production, it is an outcome the Catholic Church has been urging along, a deal the Pope hopes “will contribute to creating a climate of détente in the region.”

By honoring its commitments, Iran triggered “Implementation Day” on Jan. 16, including an end to international sanctions and the release of some frozen national assets, enabling the country to sell oil on the international market once again and to rejoin the global banking system.

Interestingly, Iran Foreign Minister Jarvad Zarif linked the achievement with larger issues of war and peace.

He tweeted, “#ImplementationDay, it’s now time for all — especially Muslim nations — to join hands and rid the world of violent extremism. Iran is ready.”


Conflict’s Complexity

The Middle East’s epicenter of violent extremism is in the huge swath of Syria and northern Iraq, controlled by the Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist groups — an area the size of Great Britain.

Pope Francis and his diplomatic team have urged greater engagement by the United Nations, so the Vatican has been very supportive of the U.N.-sponsored talks that opened last fall.

To preserve Christianity in the region, it’s also a positive sign that the amount of territory controlled by IS shrank in 2015 by 14%, according to a military analysis reported by The New York Times, using fascinating maps.

Yet the conflict’s complexity increases as the number of military interests expands.

For example, Turkish forces have been bombing Kurdish targets in Iraq and Syria — despite the Kurds being among the most successful fighters against IS — following a car-bomb blast against a police headquarters in a Kurdish-majority Turkish province.

The Kurds are a large ethnic minority in Turkey, as they are in Iraq and Syria. Turkey fears the consolidation of a Kurdish state as a result of general upheaval.

These recent air strikes destroyed a village where Christian families have taken refuge, people from the Nineveh Plain who fled IS last year, according to Chaldean-Catholic Bishop Rabban al-Qas, speaking to AsiaNews, a press agency and news site sponsored by the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions.

“It is high time to denounce these Turkish acts of terrorism,” the bishop declared. “We must have the courage to call this for what it is: real terrorism! These poor people are now terrified and scared. As if the threat from Daesh [Arabic term for the Islamic State] was not bad enough.”

Many Church leaders in the Arab-Christian community, such as Jesuit Father Samir Kahlil Samir, an authority on Islam, see recent violence in the Middle East as manifestations of a growing sectarian war within Islam, between Sunni and Shiite interests. Turkey is on the Sunni side, with Saudi Arabia against Iran and its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.


Voices for the People

Local Catholic leaders living amid the Syrian conflict are among the loudest voices denouncing its immorality.

In an 18-minute live interview on CNN, Aleppo Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart movingly declared, “Syria is a holy land” drenched in the blood of martyrs and asked the United States not to fund opposition forces as long as President al-Assad is the only leader who respects and protects Christians.

Explaining that many Syrians have faced starvation over the last year, despite the availability of food within driving distance, Archbishop Mario Zenari, the Holy See’s nuncio to Syria, declared last week, “Using hunger and thirst as a weapon of war is a crime, a shameful thing.”

He said he is surprised the international media only recently started covering civilian starvation in the town of Masaya, a town under siege, when similar deprivation threatens approximately 400,000 Syrians, according to the United Nations.

Archbishop Zenari lauded the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society, which have negotiated to get aid across combat lines, even risking their own safety, as well as priests, nuns and religious devoted to humanitarian service.


Caritas Internationalis

Some of the most extensive humanitarian assistance in the region is delivered daily by Caritas affiliates in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey.

In some places in Syria, Caritas is the only functioning local aid group.

On behalf of the Caritas network in the Middle East, Caritas Internationalis launched an “Appeal to End the Suffering in Syria” on Jan. 21, designed to pressure the international community to act decisively to end the war.

Michel Roy, Caritas Internationalis’ secretary general, explained to Vatican Radio, “Syria is at the heart of a geopolitical struggle in which the Syrian people do not count for anything.”

He said Caritas affiliates believe a settlement depends on allowing all of the conflict’s domestic parties to negotiate because “peace will come from inside, not imposed from outside.”

Roy considers “vested interests” from outside, including the arms industry, the oil industry, Russia and the European Union, to be “on the backs of the Syrians [who] are the victims, not the actors, in the end.”

Peace in Syria would also solve the refugee crisis.

As Father Paul Karam, director of Caritas Lebanon, told Asia News last fall, “When it comes to refugees … there is only one way to stop their flow: End the war in Syria. If we stop the war, the supply of weapons, the financing of terrorism —  everything — can be controlled. This task falls on the international community.”


Positive Witness

Thankfully, this month, we also witnessed a few courageous gestures by Muslim leaders renouncing the intoxication of religious hatred.

In Cairo on Jan. 6, Orthodox Christmas Eve, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi attended Divine Liturgy at St. Mark’s Coptic Christian Cathedral, together with Coptic Pope Tawadros II, declaring, “Let no one come between us.”

As parishioners cheered, he said, “God has created us different … in religion, manner, color, language, habit, tradition … and no one can make us all the same.”

El-Sissi apologized for not fixing some 50 churches vandalized, bombed and burned in 2013 by the Muslim Brotherhood followers. He promised the repairs will be made in the next year.

And on Monday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani landed in Rome, the first stop on a four-day European trip dedicated to trade and bridge-building with the West.   

Even before he met Pope Francis at the Vatican that afternoon, President Rouhani included a message of respect, even deference, to Christianity, in a speech to the Italian business community. According to the Quran, he said, “[T]he church, the synagogue and the mosque must live side by side. It lists them in that order, with the church first and the mosque last. This is no coincidence.”

One reason the Vatican is slightly more hopeful about the chances in 2016 for a Syrian peace settlement providing greater protection for Christian communities is its long-standing relationship with Iran, which is now back at the negotiating table as a result of the landmark nuclear agreement.    

Senior Register correspondent Victor Gaetan is an award-winning

international correspondent and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.