War is a defeat for humanity
‘War is always a defeat for humanity’ and could be announced as ‘the very last option’ and in accordance with ‘very strict conditions’ taking into account the consequences for the civilian population, said John Paul II.
February 2003 – the Vatican experienced a diplomatic siege. On 7 February the Pope met the German Minister of Foreign Affairs Joshka Fischer; a week later he met the Iraqi Vice-President Tarik Aziz and on 18 February he met the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Then Great Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair came to speak to the Pope. Afterwards there came the Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and the Vice-President of the Iranian Parliament Reza Khatami. At the invitation of the Vatican Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Jean-Luis Tauran the ambassadors to the Vatican came to meet the Pope on 27 February.
‘War cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good’, said John Paul II to the diplomatic corps during the traditional New Year meeting in the Apostolic Palace on 13 January 2003 when the Western world was preparing to the war against Iraq. He said that war was always a defeat for humanity and could be announced as ‘the very last option’ and in accordance with ‘very strict conditions’ without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population. Condemning all forms of violence and first of all, the most treacherous one, i.e. terrorism, he repeated that only ‘international law, honest dialogue, solidarity between States, the noble exercise of diplomacy: these are methods worthy of individuals and nations in resolving their differences.’
Several days later the present Pope Benedict XVI, who was then the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, clearly said that according to the Catholic social teaching about just war there had been no justification for the war against Iraq. The fact that the Holy See saw no moral justification for the war against Iraq evoked mixed feelings of public opinion. The appeals of John Paul II to the leaders of the big powers to save the world from conflict went unnoticed. John Paul II’s letter to President George Bush sent in October 2002 was received with indifference and even some kind of disrespect. In the letter the Pope focused on the necessity of dialogue in the Middle East and that the decision concerning Iraq belonged to the international community and should be taken by the UN. The President’s response disappointed the Pope. Towards the end of January 2003 President Bush used categorical words to announce the war against Iraq.
First of all, international community
A special envoy of the Holy Father went to Baghdad on 10 February. This mission of peace of Cardinal Roger Etchegaray was rather symbolic and, as the Vatican Spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said, its aim was to show the Iraqi government the Holy Father’s concern for peace and the need to begin serious reflection on the subject of actual international co-operation to ensure the citizens of this country the highest good, which was peace. Just after Cardinal Etchegaray had left Baghdad one of his interlocutors Tarik Aziz, Vice-president of Iraq, came to the Vatican. During the audience the Pope challenged Iraq to respect faithfully the resolution of the Security Council of the United Nations and to collaborate with the UN inspectors investigating whether Iraq had resumed any nuclear weapons. The official communiqué after the audience stated that Tarik Aziz made appropriate assurances, i.e. that the Iraqi government would collaborate with the international community, ‘especially in the field of disarmament.’ The same day the Pope met the Iraqi Vice-President the leaders of the UN mission on disarmament presented the Security Council their report that stated that the specialists of the International Atomic Energy Agency had not found any evidence against Iraq. In spite of that the following day John Paul II appealed to the Iraqi government to intensify their collaboration with the UN and warned them against the effects of the attack against Iraq that were impossible to predict.
The various kinds of diplomatic efforts of the Holy See, countless conversations of the Pope with politicians and his public appeals to them were not successful. The words of ‘the biggest moral authority of the world’ began being ignored by those who had given this very title to the Pope recently. On 3 March, during the meeting with the delegation of the American Bishops’ Conference, Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security advisor, stated that the Washington administration did not intend to change its plans under the pressure of the Catholic Church. The press spokesman of the White House Ari Fleischer made a categorical statement of similar content. He straightforwardly said that President Bush did not intend to respect the papal appeals for peace. Cardinal Pio Laghi, the special envoy of the Holy Father, went to Washington on 5 March. He brought John Paul II’s letter expressing strict ‘no’ towards the so-called preventive war and proposing some activities of the Holy See to make Iraq conduct disarmament and keep peace in the Middle East. The Vatican did not react to the rather impolite words of the Washington spokesman for the cause of success of the mission. In spite of his long-term friendship with the Bush family Cardinal Pio Laghi returned empty-handed, disillusioned. The Pope had only the power of prayer. The Ash Wednesday of 5 March became, according to the wish of John Paul II, the Day of Prayer and Fast for peace in the world.
In spite of the fact that the outbreak of the war against Iraq was inevitable the Pope did not give up his peace offensive. His voice became increasingly louder, even in the literary sense as if a long illness disturbing free speech disappeared. The more hopeless the talks with politicians were the stronger the Pope appealed to the whole world. In March 2003, almost every public message of the Holy Father referred to the war. Four days before the outbreak of the conflict he appealed that there was still time for negotiations. Two days before the invasion against Iraq the Holy See consequently maintained that not all diplomatic means were used in the Iraqi conflict. On 18 March, the Vatican spokesman said that the United States, deciding that all peaceful means foreseen by the international law had been applied and announcing war against Iraq, assumed great responsibility before God and history. When the war broke out one could hear from St Peter’s Square loud appeals for imploring prayers for peace. L’Osservatore Romano wrote that every Sunday St Peter’s Square changed into a huge agora where peace became a word, gesture prayer, testimony. Although the appeal for prayer in the intention of a quick end of the war in Iraq was in focus the Pope did not give up other forms of his peace offensive. On 5 April, during his talks to the French minister of foreign affairs he spoke about the need of help of the international community for the citizens of Iraq and he asked him to get interested in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in order to quench the embers of all conflicts in the Near East as soon as possible. When the allied forces reached the suburbs of Baghdad, on 6 April, before the prayer of Angelus John Paul remembered the defenceless people of Iraq again, appealing to end the war as soon as possible.
War cannot allow divisions between religions
On 10 April the State Secretariat of the Apostolic See assured about the readiness of the Church to help the local people, using the Church’s social and charity institutions. The representatives of the Apostolic See constantly stressed that the entire international community should be involved in this help. Even in his Easter message the Pope did appeal to the international community, saying ‘may the Iraqi people become the protagonists of the collective rebuilding of their country.’ When just after Easter 2003 the UN inspectors questioned the intelligence information given by London and Washington concerning the Iraqi nuclear weapons the Vatican decisively supported the UN but it did not conceal its fears that the international community would have little influence on the future of Iraq and future affairs in the world. During the Iraqi conflict one could many a time hear statements of the Vatican about the need to ‘formulate a constitution for the world’… Although John Paul II saw this conflict in the categories of clashes of cultures and civilisations he often expressed hope that war could not cause divisions between religions. ‘Let us not allow this human tragedy become a religious catastrophe’, he said to the bishops from Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country who came to the Vatican when there were the heaviest fights in Iraq.