By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
There was no private appeal from Pope Benedict XVI prior to the execution of Saddam Hussein to save the former Iraqi leader’s life, a Vatican official said today, largely because there was no time to organize such an intervention.
Speaking on background by telephone, a senior Vatican diplomat told NCR that as late as Thursday or Friday of last week, the Vatican still hoped that a 30-day waiting period prior to the use of capital punishment prescribed in Iraqi law would be observed.
The official said the execution Saturday at dawn in Baghdad took place with “barbaric rapidity.”
“It’s obvious that judicial safeguards were not fully observed,” the official said.
Under Pope John Paul II, it became virtually standard procedure for the pope to intervene to save the life of death row inmates scheduled for execution anywhere in the world as an expression of the Church’s opposition to capital punishment. The senior Vatican official said Benedict might have done the same thing in Hussein’s case had there been more time.
“It’s not that we don’t recognize Saddam was guilty of horrendous crimes,” the official said. “But we don’t believe that the death penalty is justified, even in such cases.”
Other Vatican officials and senior Catholic leaders around the world condemned Hussein’s execution.
“Capital punishment is always tragic news, a motive of sadness, even when it’s a case of a person guilty of grave crimes. The position of the Catholic Church against the death penalty has been confirmed many times,” said Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson.
The death penalty amounts to answering “a crime with another crime. ...The death penalty is not a natural death. And no one can give death, not even the state,” said Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
Archbishop Rodolfo Quezada of Guatemala said that “We, the universal Catholic Church, oppose the death penalty because it is not a deterrent and because it is irreparable.” The Catholic Church in Guatemala has struggled to overturn that country’s law authorizing capital punishment by lethal injection, which was placed on the books after death by firing squad was declared unconstitutional in 1998.
A spokesperson for the Community of Sant’Egidio, an international Catholic movement founded in Italy which has led Catholic opposition to the death penalty, called Hussein’s execution “a barbarism added to a war and a situation of terror which is already barbaric,” warning that it will open a new cycle based on the desire for “vendetta.”
“Justice was obviously not the only factor in this story,” said Archbishop Jean-Marie Sleiman, the Latin Rite archbishop of Baghdad. Sleiman and others hinted that tribal and political animosities were also part of the picture, an impression reinforced by images of Shi’ites in the execution party shouting the name of Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shi’ite cleric who long served as a symbol of resistance to perceived slights under Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime.
Meanwhile, French-born Fr. Jean-Marie Benjamin, who heads the Beatico Angelico Foundation in Italy and who was widely known as the leading Catholic apologist for the Hussein regime, told Italian media that “negotiations are underway” for the eventual release of Tariq Aziz, the Chaldean Christian who served as Hussein’s spokesperson in the West.
Benjamin said that Aziz is currently being held in an American-controlled prison near the Baghdad airport, and is in “grave physical condition,” claiming that the once-portly Aziz has lost 55 pounds since his surrender to American forces in April 2003.
Benjamin was the principal organizer of a controversial visit by Aziz to Assisi and the Vatican in February 2003, when Aziz styled Iraq under Hussein as a largely innocent victim of American and Israeli aggression. The welcome mat rolled out for Aziz, especially by the Franciscans in Assisi, generated a storm of critical comment.