As Israel began its latest campaign of self-defense, the Vatican’s leading government official rushed to join his peers on the speeding bandwagon of international disapproval.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state and effectively its prime minister, condemned Israel’s attack against Hezbollah’s positions in Lebanon and the resources the terrorist group could exploit.
“In particular, the Holy See deplores right now the attack on Lebanon, a free and sovereign nation, and assures its closeness to those people who already have suffered so much to defend their independence,” he told Vatican Radio on July 14. “The right of defense on the part of a state does not exempt it from its responsibility to respect international law, particularly regarding the safeguarding of civilian populations.”
Perhaps someone should ask the good cardinal how Israel should respond to enemies who have publicly expressed their desire to destroy it, who have rejected various peaceful settlements, ignored concessions and who continue to murder and maim Israeli civilians. Perhaps someone should ask the cardinal how any nation facing a similar situation should respond.
In any event, Sodano’s words expose three facts of life in Rome. One is the Vatican’s remarkable lack of empathy or compassion for Israeli victims of terrorist atrocities. Another is a policy toward Israel that has outlived its usefulness. The final fact is Sodano’s pending obsolescence.
Sandro Magister, the veteran Vatican correspondent for Italy’s L’Espresso, pointedly described on July 19 the hypocrisy concerning Israel – especially considering Pope Benedict XVI’s warm outreach to Jews: “…it is striking that Benedict XVI is not defending the existence of Israel – which its enemies want to annihilate as the final aim of the conflict underway – with the same explicit, strong determination with which he repeatedly raises his voice in defense of the ‘non-negotiable’ principles concerning human life.”
That silence reflects a position toward Israel revolving around support for civilian Arab populations – especially Palestinians and Arab Christians – as a counterweight to Israeli power. Vittorio Parsi, professor of international relations at the Catholic University of Milan, described that policy in 2003 for the Italian magazine Diritto e Libertà.
“Regarding the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the
Vatican's political stance has been and remains directed by a cornerstone and long-held principle within Church tradition: that is, attention must be given to peoples and not their governments,” Parsi wrote. Given that cornerstone and the lack of a Palestinian state, which the Vatican supports establishing, “it is by the side of (the Palestinian) populace that the Vatican has decided to stand firm, without its choice implying any anti-Israeli discrimination.”
Parsi, who also serves as a columnist for the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, further analyzed the Vatican’s policy toward Israel with respect to issues that are particularly relevant now.
Self-defense: “The Vatican’s concept of security is by definition one which refers to the notion of collective safety and multi-lateral ways of its realization. In addition, this notion tends toward a criteria of balance that, from Rome’s perspective, is an irrefutable aspect of Middle Eastern policy. What’s more, for the Holy See, security must be achieved while respecting the norms of international law.
“Israel, on the other hand, holds that security must be a prerequisite for any further step toward achieving a solution to the conflict and can be unilaterally guaranteed with all necessary means. In terms of international law, Jerusalem then is seen to have assumed an increasingly open critical position over the years.”
Syrian influence in Lebanon: “…Lebanon is considered by Israel simply as a Syrian protectorate, especially because of the openly managerial role Damascus has played for more than two decades in Lebanon. For Israel, once the Syrian issue is resolved, the logical result will be the end of interference in Lebanon.
“For the Vatican as well, both Lebanon and Syria are connected, but in the sense that its strategy is to consolidate Lebanese integrity and independence in the Arab world with the goal of safeguarding the conspicuous Christian presence in the region. Perhaps it is in this sense that we can understand why the Vatican has maintained particularly prudent relations with Damascus - which, in actual fact, violates Lebanese sovereignty much more than Jerusalem does.”
Iran: “Israel maintains that the Islamic republic is even a more serious threat than was Saddam Hussein's regime. What is alarming to the Israeli government is not so much Iran's support of Hezbollah militia as much as it is the Iranian nuclear program.
“The Holy See appears, however, much more inclined toward Iran. Above all, it is particularly careful to exploit reformist efforts…At the same time, the Vatican greatly fears that Israel may opt for a preventive strike against Iranian nuclear reactors, thus provoking widespread conflict arising from unforeseeable consequences."
The Vatican’s stance regarding Israel, forged during the papacy of Pope John Paul II, has proven useless in mitigating geopolitical conflicts between Israel and its enemies. It has also failed on a moral level, not only by ignoring terrorism against Israeli civilians but also by failing to protect Arab and Palestinian Christians against Muslim oppression.
In a September interview with the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa – who represents the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, which governs church property –bluntly described the difficulties Palestinian Christians face: “What do you mean by difficulties between Israel and the Vatican? We Christians in the Holy Land have other problems. Almost every day – I repeat, almost every day – our communities are harassed by the Islamic extremists in these regions. “And if it's not the members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, there are clashes with the 'rubber wall' of the Palestinian Authority, which does little or nothing to punish those responsible. On occasion, we have even discovered among our attackers the police agents of Mahmoud Abbas or the militants of Fatah, his political party, who are supposed to be defending us.”
Sodano’s remarks also reflect what Parsi called the “pro-Arab prejudice” that “persists in some noteworthy exponents within Vatican hierarchy.” Few such exponents are more noteworthy than Sodano himself.
As secretary of state, Sodano is responsible for the Vatican’s communications outlets – including its newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, which constantly displays an anti-Israel attitude. The magazine from Sodano’s own office, Civilita Cattolica, complements L’Osservatore with anti-American rhetoric “after the fashion of the radical left of Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore,” Magister wrote.
Moreover, Magister describes Sodano as “a great admirer of Yasser Arafat” and “a supporter of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah,” whose support for Palestinian extremists and opposition to Israel was explored in FrontPageMag.com's “Patriarch of Terror.”
Sodano has gone so far as to use duplicitous means to promote his agenda, even at the expense of the Vatican’s diplomatic credibility and Benedict’s dignity.
The secretary of state took advantage of the pope’s vacation in July 2005 to prepare a statement in Benedict’s name that condemned recent terrorist attacks “in various countries like Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Great Britain.” Omitted was any reference to a suicide bombing in Netanya, an Israeli coastal resort. Five victims died and 90 were wounded.
Sodano publicized the statement July 24, 2005. One day later, Israel’s foreign ministry filed a protest. Tensions reached the point where Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke directly with Sodano, who tried to shift the blame to the Vatican’s press secretary, Joaquin Navarro-Walls, who accompanied Benedict on vacation.
But mandatory retirement is forcing the 78-year-old Sodano out. Pope Benedict himself testified to Sodano’s rapidly diminishing influence by publicly contradicting him July 18, when the pope supported the G8 summit’s blaming Hezbollah and Hamas for hostilities.
Sodano’s replacement, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, will assume office September 15 as part of Benedict’s gradual, meticulous housecleaning of high Vatican offices. That housecleaning includes a subtle shift in policy regarding Israel.
Magister reported in L’Espresso on March 6 that Benedict plans to promote Pizzaballa and appoint him as the bishop for Hebrew-speaking Christians in Israel. Pizzaballa “is viewed very favorably by the Israeli authorities,” Magister wrote.
That move complements another that Benedict made last September. To mitigate Sabbah’s influence, the pope appointed Fouad Twal, the former Archbishop of Tunis, as Sabbah’s auxiliary. Twal – expected to replace Sabbah in two years – is “regarded in
Israel as far more acceptable,” wrote Abdal-Hakim Murad, a Muslim commentator in Britain.
Father David Jaeger, a member of the Franciscan Custody and a canon lawyer who has advised the Vatican concerning Israel, implied the policy shift on Vatican Radio one day before Sodano made his remarks: “It is necessary to understand the depth and force of Israel’s anger. The Lebanese government has a choice: It can continue to allow Hezbollah to control southern Lebanon or it can show some courage, reaffirm Lebanese sovereignty and suppress Hezbollah.”
Pope Benedict also seeks a more confrontational approach toward Islam, especially regarding religious freedom for Christians in Muslim countries. In the process, Benedict seems to be less willing to disregard Islamic radicalism for the sake of ecumenical dialogue than his predecessor. Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican’s foreign minister, expressed this new direction in May during an address to the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants. Some excerpts:
…one notices a recent general tendency of the Muslim-majority countries to promote, even outside their own borders, an increasingly radical form of conduct in conformity with Islamic precepts, and to assert a greater public presence of such conduct. This phenomenon … results in a religious fanaticism that exerts strong social and institutional pressure upon minorities of other faiths…In the realm of principle, it must be said that in the face of Islam the Church is called to live out its own identity to the full without drawing back, and to take clear and courageous positions in asserting the Christian identity. We know well that radical Islam takes advantage of anything that it interprets as a sign of weakness.
It is evident that the initiatives for dialogue on religious topics do not belong to the states, but to religious leaders, although they can be facilitated by political officials.
But if the Vatican is serious about changing its policy toward Israel – and if it really believes its rhetoric about supporting peoples rather than their governments – it must forcefully and unequivocally offer the same support to Israeli victims of terror as it does to Arab victims of war and religious persecution.
Otherwise, intelligent people will recognize the Vatican’s support for the innocent as nothing but a cover for its own geopolitical interests and cynical personal agendas – as, unfortunately, it has been to this point.