By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Wielding some of his most dramatic language to date about Darfur and other regions of the world, especially Africa and the Middle East, Pope Benedict XVI today offered a 360-degree review of the Vatican’s international concerns in an annual address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See.
The meeting with the diplomats is considered the pope’s most important foreign policy speech of the year.
Although he defined diplomacy as “the art of hope,” Benedict, speaking in French, nevertheless warned that in Darfur “hope seems almost vanquished by the menacing sequence of hunger and death.”
“With all my heart,” the pope said, “I pray that the joint operation of the United Nations and the African Union, whose mission has just begun, will bring aid and comfort to the suffering populations.”
Estimates are that somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 civilians have died during four years violence in the Darfur region of Sudan, which some have described as “genocide,” and an estimated 2.5 million refugees and internally displaced persons are currently living in 50 massive camps.
On a more theoretical level, Benedict argued that the experience of 2007 confirms “that law and order are guarantees of freedom.”
“Law can be an effective force for peace only if its foundations remain solidly anchored in natural law, given by the Creator,” Benedict said. “This is another reason why God can never be excluded from the horizon of man or of history. God’s name is a name of justice, it represents an urgent appeal for peace.”
This emphasis on natural law as a sine qua non of global peace and justice is likely to be a key theme in Benedict’s April 18 address to the United Nations. In the run-up to his trip to the States, the Catholic University of America is sponsoring a major conference on “A Common Morality” March 27-30, organized at the pope’s personal request.
In his speech this morning in the Vatican’s Sala Regia, or “Hall of Kings,” Benedict also mentioned Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya as areas of special concern in Africa.
“The Catholic Church is not indifferent to the cries of pain that rise up from these regions,” the pope said. “She makes her own the pleas for help made by refugees and displaced persons, and she pledges herself to foster reconciliation, justice and peace.”
Benedict endorsed a January 2 appeal from the Catholic bishops in Kenya for a peaceful resolution of the stand-off between President Mwai Kibaki and challenger Raila Odinga. Because Kibaki is a member of the long-dominant Kikuyu tribe in Kenya, the political crisis quickly became an ethic one as well. The Kenyan bishops have volunteered to serve as mediators, though some Odinga supporters have accused the bishops of implicitly supporting Kibaki, a Catholic.
“No one in Kenya, absolutely no one, is perceived as being neutral in the present situation,” a Kenyan academic based in Nairobi told NCR Jan. 7.
Benedict XVI also reaffirmed the Vatican’s long-standing diplomatic interest in the Middle East, calling once more for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and in Lebanon. Benedict said that the Lebanese people should be able to “decide freely on their future,” potentially a reference to outside interference, above all from Syria, in Lebanese affairs.
The pope expressed concern about ongoing “terrorist attacks, threats and violence” in Iraq, “especially against the Christian community.”
“The news which arrived yesterday confirms our concern,” Benedict said, referring to three car bomb attacks in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul against two churches, including one of the Chaldean Catholic rite, and a Chaldean convent.
Quoting John Paul II, Benedict called religious freedom “an essential requirement of the dignity of every person [and] a cornerstone of the structure of human rights.”
Iraq’s Christian community was once among the largest in the Arab world, though today a combination of insecurity, economic collapse and hostility from Islamic extremists have produced what many experts regard as a Christian exodus out of the country.
The pope also called for “continued and uninterrupted pursuit of the path of diplomacy” to resolve disputes over Iran’s nuclear program.
On Cuba, Benedict noted the approaching 10th anniversary of John Paul II’s 1998 visit and encouraged “all Cubans to work together for a better future.” With reference to the August earthquake in Peru that caused an estimated 500 deaths and destroyed some 60,000 homes, Benedict quoted his recent encyclical Spe Salvi: “The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer.”
In Asia, the pope expressed concern for developments in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Turning to Europe, Benedict praised progress towards peace in the Balkans and called for a resolution in Cyprus to end a conflict “that has already lasted too long.” He said efforts toward unity in Europe will succeed “if it does not deny its Christian roots.”
The pope called for a renewed commitment to inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue.
“In order to be true, this dialogue must be clear, avoiding relativism and syncretism, while at the same time it must be marked by sincere respect for others and by a spirit of reconciliation and fraternity,” he said.
Benedict once again expressed appreciation for the letter from 138 leading Muslim scholars suggesting possible common ground between Christianity and Islam. In February or March, preparatory meetings will be held in Rome to organize a session between Benedict and a delegation of signatories to the letter, projected to occur sometime after his trip to the United States.
The pope also objected to “continual attacks perpetrated on every continent against human life,” as well as “disturbing threats to the integrity of the family, founded on the marriage of a man and a woman.”
“The new frontiers reached in bioethics do not require us to choose between science and morality,” he said. “Rather, they oblige us to a moral use of science.”
Benedict expressed satisfaction with a recent vote of the U.N. General Assembly in favor of a global moratorium on the death penalty, urging that it prompt “public debate on the sacred character of human life.”
Finally, Benedict urged greater efforts to foster economic and environmental justice. Quoting the well-known phrase of Paul VI that “development is the new name of peace,” Benedict said: “Peace is a commitment and a manner of life which demands that the legitimate aspirations of all should be satisfied, such as access to food, water and energy, to medicine and technology, or indeed the monitoring of climate change.”
In keeping with custom, Ambassador Giovanni Galassi of the Republic of San Marino delivered greetings to the pope on behalf of the diplomats. Galassi, who has held his position since 1986, is considered the dean of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See.
Ambassador Francis Rooney represented the United States. In a statement after the pope's speech, Rooney said Benedict's support for the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians is particularly important on the eve of a trip by U.S. President George Bush to the region in an effort to bring the parties closer to a deal.
"The Holy Father’s message underlines the urgency in keeping that process moving forward," Rooney said.
Rooney is preparing to finish his term; his successor, Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, has been confirmed by the United States Senate and is awaiting mandatory training sessions for new ambassadors organized by the U.S. State Department. Glendon expects to arrive in Rome sometime in February.
"As I conclude my service in Rome, I applaud the clear and courageous efforts of Pope Benedict which promote and protect human dignity of the most vulnerable around the world," Rooney said.