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VATICAN LETTER Dec-16-2005 (900 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Diplomats try to decode hints from pope's World Peace Day message

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI released his first World Peace Day message in December, and members of the diplomatic corps promptly put on their reading glasses.

Although the pope's message did not mention any country by name, his words could be applied to a number of nations -- critically or favorably -- on issues ranging from terrorism to disarmament. Embassies immediately began parsing the text for policy hints and directions under the new pope.

From a U.S. perspective, the 12-page message indirectly raised questions about the treatment of terror suspects, a subject that has been front-page news in Europe and elsewhere for several weeks.

The day the papal message was released, a European investigator cited evidence that U.S. agents kidnapped and held people in European countries, and then illegally moved them across national borders. That followed publicized allegations of secret CIA prisons in Europe.

Meanwhile, human rights organizations have demanded to enter the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to check out accusations of the cruel treatment of several hundred detainees who have been held there for more than three years.

The Bush administration considers the Guantanamo detainees "unlawful enemy combatants" and therefore not covered by the Geneva Conventions' provisions for treatment of prisoners of war. It denies the detainees are being treated inhumanely.

The pope's message stated emphatically that international humanitarian law exists even in the midst of war, and that "respect for that law must be considered binding on all peoples."

He appeared to allude to the situations created by the so-called war on terrorism when he said humanitarian law should be updated with "precise norms applicable to the changing scenarios of today's armed conflicts."

An informed Vatican official, speaking on background, said it was clear that the debate over mistreatment of terror suspects was a key part of the context for the pope's remarks on humanitarian law.

At the same time, he said, the pope was not speaking in code to world leaders, but enunciating the principles clearly and forcefully. If the papal message embarrasses some countries, then they probably have a guilty conscience, the official said.

There was no explicit mention of Iraq in the World Peace Day message. But under his general theme, "In Truth, Peace," the pope wrote about the lies of history that have fueled wars, and added, "How can we fail to be seriously concerned about lies in our own time, lies which are the framework for menacing scenarios of death in many parts of the world."

While many read this as a general caution, a leading Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, saw "an indirect reference to the U.S. orchestration of reasons for attacking Iraq."

The pope's words on terrorism gave insight into another issue at the top of the Bush administration's agenda.

Pope Benedict took a characteristically blunter approach than his predecessor when he said that "religious fanaticism ... can inspire and encourage terrorist thinking and activity." Pope John Paul II was more likely to describe terrorism as co-opting religious sentiment -- in his view, the fundamentalism that fueled terrorism was actually opposed to religion.

The pope's message was probably not playing well in Tehran, the capital of Iran. The pope reproached leaders who "incite their citizens to hostility toward other nations" and threaten regional peace.

That was universally understood as a criticism of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly inveighed against Israel and called for it to be "wiped off the map."

Perhaps the strongest papal statements came in a section on nuclear weapons, and it illustrated a considerable divide in U.S.-Vatican thinking. For many years, even after the end of the Cold War, the Vatican has warned of the dangers of nuclear warheads and called for disarmament.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, has pushed for development of new types of smaller, tactical nuclear weapons, including "bunker-buster" miniwarheads. Congress recently approved funding of a "reliable replacement warhead" program that critics say will keep nuclear weapons at the center of U.S. national security for many years.

U.S. leaders are more likely to speak of the dangers of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists -- a possibility the pope did not mention in his message. Instead, he focused on governments that possess or seek nuclear weapons, and said the "truth of peace" requires them to "change their course" and firmly commit to a progressive nuclear disarmament.

That's a major challenge, not only to the United States but to all members and would-be members of the nuclear weapons club.

The World Peace Day message was the first of three big papal pronouncements that are traditionally given close attention by foreign governments. On Christmas Day, Pope Benedict will deliver his blessing, "urbi et orbi," which means "to the city (Rome) and the world." Under Pope John Paul, the blessing often included commentary on global trouble spots.

Then, in early January, the pope will meet the diplomatic corps at the Vatican for his annual "state of the world" address. By that time, people will have a clearer picture of the new pope's international priorities.

Whatever details emerge, Pope Benedict has already made the case that world stability depends on religion as well as politics. Peace, he said in his recent message, is essentially the task of "conforming human history -- in truth, justice, freedom and love -- to the divine order."


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