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VATICAN LETTER Aug-4-2006 (880 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

Mideast war brings pope's foreign policy agenda into clearer focus

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- With the war in Lebanon, the Vatican's Middle East policies under Pope Benedict XVI have come into clearer focus.

To the surprise of some, they look just like the policies of Pope John Paul II.

The Vatican's insistent call for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon has highlighted a basic disagreement with the United States and some other Western governments. Backing Israel, the U.S. wants a cease-fire conditioned on a wider accord ultimately aimed at disarming Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon.

The pope, on the other hand, has urged all sides to lay down their weapons now, saying nothing can be gained by the current fighting.

In a sense, the root difference may be over the usefulness of war -- or the lack thereof.

When U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in late July that the fighting in Lebanon represented "the birth pangs of a new Middle East," it caught the Vatican's attention.

A week later, the pope offered a strikingly different assessment, saying the conflict was feeding hatred and the desire for vengeance.

"These facts clearly demonstrate that you cannot re-establish justice, create a new order and build an authentic peace by turning to the instrument of violence," the pope said.

Pope Benedict's heartfelt pleas to stop the carnage, particularly after an Israeli air raid killed many civilians in Qana, Lebanon, have echoed the dramatic appeals of Pope John Paul during times of Mideast conflict.

"Our eyes are filled with the chilling images of people's bodies -- especially children's -- torn apart," Pope Benedict said. "I want to repeat that nothing can justify the spilling of innocent blood, no matter which side does it."

In private talks, Vatican officials have asked that the U.S. government use its influence with Israel to bring an immediate halt to hostilities.

To the Israelis, the Vatican has made it clear that it views its military offensive in Lebanon as a disproportionate use of force. Israel's ambassador to the Vatican, Oded Ben-Hur, has made counterarguments.

"I say two things: first, that the proportion is to the amount of threat, and (Hezbollah) is putting the north of Israel, a million people, under the threat of missiles," Ben-Hur said told Catholic News Service in an interview.

"Secondly, what is the right proportion? Give it to me. What is it, 10 to five? One to one? One hundred to 1,000? There is no such thing," he said.

The ambassador said he thinks that on a practical level the Vatican understands Israel's motives in Lebanon, and is even sympathetic to Israeli concerns. But because of moral objections, he said, the Vatican asks Israel to "find a way not to retaliate."

"I say, tell us what the formula is," the ambassador said. He argues that Israel's actions are essentially self-defense against an enemy that must be hit wherever they are found.

As for civilian deaths, Israeli officials say Hezbollah is ultimately responsible because it uses civilian areas to stage rocket attacks.

Throughout his papacy, Pope John Paul warned against military solutions to international problems. His condemnation of war was sometimes discounted by political commentators as idealistic morality.

When elected, Pope Benedict was seen by many observers as more of a hard-nosed realist. Some have described him as tougher on terrorism and more wary of radical Islam than his predecessor, factors thought to make him more sympathetic to Israel.

Moreover, even inside the Vatican, there have been murmurings that Pope Benedict has not been totally in sync with holdover officials of the Vatican's Secretariat of State, particularly on issues involving Israel, terrorism and the Middle East. The thinking was that the pope's own foreign policy agenda would become clearer in September, when his appointees take over.

But the Lebanese crisis has deflated these theories. The pope's own statements have strongly supported those of outgoing secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and his deputy, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, Vatican foreign minister.

"There seems to be a surprising degree of unanimity and outspokenness, so far at least, on this issue," said one diplomat in Rome.

"In other words, if the pope really wasn't quite comfortable with (Cardinal) Sodano and (Archbishop) Lajolo as some suggest, he's giving them a lot of room. And his own public comments for the most part seem to echo theirs," he said.

Privately, Vatican officials are taking pains to emphasize several other points to diplomats:

-- Lebanese sovereignty must be protected, along with the unity of the country. The fear is that the latest fighting could provoke a new civil war.

-- Lebanese infrastructure is being severely damaged with each new day of attacks, leaving a huge rebuilding task and sowing widespread resentment against Israel.

-- The war could deeply impact Lebanon's sizable Christian minority, encouraging a new wave of emigration from a country that, in the Vatican's view, has been an example of relative interreligious harmony.

-- New efforts are needed to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which is seen at the Vatican as the ultimate cause and context of the current problems in Lebanon. A resolution of the Palestinian question will come only through bilateral negotiations, not by solutions imposed by Israel, Vatican officials say.


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