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VATICAN LETTER May-12-2006 (860 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

Vatican weighs in on U.S. reaction toward Iranian, Palestinian issues

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Two topics looming large in the world arena -- the Hamas-led Palestinian government and Iran's nuclear program -- are drawing close attention these days from the Vatican's foreign policy experts.

On the Palestinian situation, the Vatican believes Hamas should be pressed to moderate its positions, but it opposes the U.S. and European strategy of cutting off foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority.

On Iran, the Vatican has encouraged the Iranian government to cooperate more fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that its nuclear program is peaceful. At the same time, Vatican officials believe military intervention aimed at forcing Iran's hand would be disastrous.

Vatican sources spoke to Catholic News Service in early May, following a series of quiet diplomatic meetings on Middle Eastern developments.

On May 9, Kurt Volker, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, briefed the Vatican's No. 2 foreign policy official, Msgr. Pietro Parolin, on these and other issues. Meeting with reporters afterward, Volker underlined areas of U.S.-Vatican agreement, including opposition to terrorism.

Part of the reason for the U.S. and European cutoff of funds to the Palestinian government, Volker said, is to "ensure that we are not condoning or supporting terrorism in any way."

The United States is using the funding freeze to pressure Hamas to renounce violence, to recognize Israel's right to exist and to accept previously negotiated peace agreements.

Vatican sources said the Holy See shares those three goals -- but completely disagrees that an economic boycott should be used to achieve them.

"Cutting off funds may strangle Hamas, but it also is strangling the Palestinian population. This is not the way to proceed," one source said. He said the Vatican viewed favorably efforts by some countries to devise a temporary international fund to deliver humanitarian funds to Palestinians, bypassing Hamas.

The Vatican also believes that it may take time for Hamas to moderate its policies, and that this should not be viewed as an absolute precondition to dialogue.

At present, the sources said, the Vatican continues to deal with the Palestinian Authority through the office of President Mahmoud Abbas, a member of the less-militant Fatah Party.

The Holy See has not sought direct contact with Hamas but would not exclude it should Hamas want to open talks, the sources said.

The Vatican believes this more flexible approach to Hamas might help encourage moderate voices inside the organization. After all, the sources pointed out, for years the Palestine Liberation Organization refused to accept Israel's right to exist, but eventually became a dialogue partner with Israel.

Economic disruption as a political tactic does not find favor at the Vatican. In the Vatican's view, even if the strategy causes the Hamas-led government to collapse, the long-term consequences would be more resentment and radicalization of the Palestinian population.

Iran's nuclear program -- which Iran says is solely for civilian uses -- poses a whole different set of challenges, and the church is only marginally involved. But the Vatican has had occasion to convey its positions to both U.S. and Iranian diplomats in recent weeks.

When Volker visited Rome, he said he assured the Vatican that the United States was pursuing a diplomatic approach to curbing Iran's nuclear program.

"I think that is something the Vatican appreciates -- that we are using every means possible to pursue a solution to this through diplomatic and economic measures and working through the U.N. Security Council," he said.

Some press reports have suggested that the U.S. administration, convinced that Iran is well on its way to building nuclear weapons, is already planning military action against Iran.

Vatican sources said the Holy See would view military intervention in Iran as morally unjustifiable and impractical.

The Vatican basically supports the position of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has called on Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program, allow more international inspections and work more cooperatively with the international community to certify that its nuclear development is strictly for peaceful purposes.

As one Vatican source said, Iran has the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. But the history of Iran's program -- including its secrecy and the fact that it was directed by the military -- raises questions that Iran needs to clarify, he said.

The Vatican has explained its position to Iranian officials on more than one occasion. Iran has a large embassy to the Holy See and appears to take a great interest in pronouncements by Pope Benedict XVI and others at the Vatican.

In his Easter message "urbi et orbi" (to the city of Rome and the world), the pope reportedly pleased the Iranian diplomats when he said that problems linked to nuclear power require "an honorable solution ... for all parties, through serious and honest negotiations."

The pope also strongly defended Israel's "just right to exist in peace." Some felt that was directed at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." One Vatican official said the Iranian president's views on Israel are considered outrageous.


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