Among the representatives of 15 powerful nations gathered in Rome on July 26 to discuss the crisis between Lebanon and Israel were clergymen sent from that tiniest of states ruled by the world’s last absolute monarch, the Pope. Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, Vatican secretary for relations with states, and two monsignors from his staff had been asked to be observers at the talks, which were initiated by the U.S. State Department and the Italian government. Though the clerics were not invited to address the community of politicians, their very presence reminded those gathered of the position of the Holy See on the conflict, one often repeated by Pope Benedict XVI: Besides calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities, the Pope made it clear that
The Lebanese people have a right to the integrity and sovereignty of their country; the Israeli people have a right to live in peace in their own state, and the Palestinian people have a right to have a free and sovereign homeland.
The Pope’s position echoed that of the pontiffs of the last century, who, following the establishment of Israel in 1948, argued that the only solution to protecting the Holy Land from interminable war is to grant Jerusalem special international status and to establish a contiguous Palestinian state. In effect, the Vatican endorsed the U.N. partition plan of 1947, which was never fully implemented because of the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Over the subsequent decades, the modern state of Israel would take on profound symbolism for Jews around the world, a development formally recognized by the Holy See in the jubilee year of 2000 with the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
This summer’s devastating 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah was the first new war of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, and his statements made during the crisis were consistent with the long-standing position of the Holy See on the conflicts in the Middle East. Initially, Benedict seemed reluctant for the Vatican to voice a strong opinion, since addressing issues pertaining to the region is always delicate for the Church, as She tries to promote better interreligious relations with both Jews and Muslims while, at the same time, serving as the international advocate of marginalized Christians in the Holy Land. In response to his first questioning by the media on the conflict, the Pope replied that he was in full agreement with the communiqué of the G-8, desiring only to remind everyone of the importance of prayer in the achievement of peace. The following Sunday, he added his judgment that
at the origin of these cruel oppositions there are, sadly, objective situations of violation of law and justice. But neither terrorist acts nor reprisals, above all when there are tragic consequences for the civilian population, can be justified. By such paths, as bitter experience demonstrates, one does not arrive at positive results.
As the less-guarded Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict sometimes used more direct language, as when he called the prospect of a preemptive war against Iraq “illegal” and clarified, in October 2002, that the very concept of preemptive or preventive war appeared nowhere in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. A few months later, at the invitation of the U.S. embassy to the Holy See, American Catholic theologian Michael Novak spoke in Rome on the topic of “Asymmetrical Warfare and Just War,” offering a contrasting interpretation to Vatican officials.
Despite his newfound diplomatic approach, Pope Benedict did not shy away from consistently raising the alarm concerning the escalation of violence in Lebanon and Israel in July and August, specifically calling for an immediate cease-fire, humanitarian aid for the hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire, and the establishment of a serious dialogue between all the affected parties that respects the sovereignty and rights of all. He also sent an envoy to Lebanon near the end of the war, Roger Cardinal Etchegaray, the same envoy sent by John Paul II to Saddam Hussein in a last-minute attempt to avert war. The mission was one of spiritual solidarity: At the same time that Cardinal Etchegaray presided over a Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon (concelebrated by Maronite Patriarch of Antioch Nasrallah Sfeir), a Mass was celebrated in Israel at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth by Monsignor Antonio Franco, the Vatican nuncio to Israel, and Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah. Less than a month before, Hezbollah rockets had fallen a short distance from this church, killing two Arab Israeli boys.
Pope Benedict also gave his approval to the intervention of a representative of the Holy See at a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council dedicated to the situation in Lebanon. “The violence of these weeks is destroying a promising model of national conviviality,” said Archbishop Silvano Tomasi,
built over centuries, where a plurality of communities, even of very different religious convictions, learned that the only way to live in peace and security and to use their human resources and diversity in a creative way, is dialogue and close cooperation.
Countering the maxim that “might makes right,” the Holy See’s permanent observer to the U.N. office in Geneva enjoined:
May law never reach the point of sanctioning results obtained by force alone. That would be the ruin of civilization, the defeat of international law, and a fatal example for other areas in the region and, in fact, for the world.
In some candid remarks to German-speaking media a few days before the U.N. cease-fire deal of August 11, Benedict said of the Holy See’s position,
Of course we have no political influence and we don’t want any political power, but we do want to appeal to all Christians and to all those who feel touched by the words of the Holy See, to help mobilize all the forces that recognize how war is the worst solution for all sides. It brings no good to anyone, not even to the apparent victors. We understand this very well in Europe, after the two World Wars.
It is an opinion echoed by an injured Israeli soldier speaking, in August, to a reporter from his hospital bed: “I’m not sure what we were fighting for but I’m 100 percent sure that we didn’t achieve it.” After more than a month of fighting and thousands of lives lost or permanently altered by injury, the truce indeed proved that no good had been achieved: Israel was forced to agree to a prisoner exchange for her two abducted soldiers after swearing to continue the fight until they were rescued; Hezbollah remains in Lebanon and is more popular than ever; and the new Lebanese government—the first anti-Syrian government since the end of the civil war—finds itself under the threat of another civil war provoked by the destruction of social and economic bonds that had been painstakingly built up over the last 15 years. And yet another wave of emigration of educated and wealthy Christians and Sunni Muslims from Lebanon has upset the fragile balance of religions and cultures in that country.
Pope Benedict touched on the role Christians can play as peacemakers in the Middle East in his August interview:
Everyone needs peace. There is a strong Christian community in Lebanon, there are Christians among the Arabs, there are Christians in Israel. Christians throughout the world are committed to helping these countries that are dear to all of us. There are moral forces at work that are ready to help people understand how the only solution is for all of us to live together. These are the forces we want to mobilize: It’s up to politicians to find a way to let this happen as soon as possible and, especially, to make it last.
The Christians of the Middle East captured a rare moment of the popular media’s attention during the civilian slaughter in Lebanon and Israel during the 34-day war. Just after the fighting began, the leader of the largest group of Christians in the Middle East, Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, met with Vice President Dick Cheney in the White House. Sfeir happened to be in Washington for the dedication of a new Maronite church bearing the timely name Our Lady of Lebanon. The patriarch’s remarks to the media following the meeting were mystifying, considering the Vice President’s strong support of the administration’s policy on the war: “[Cheney] will see what he can do for us. It’s not so easy because of a lot of complicated situations with a lot of countries.” Cardinal Sfeir indicated that he believed Cheney did not share the U.S. government’s plan, presumably referring to Condoleezza Rice’s call for a “new Middle East.” Cardinal Sfeir added that Cheney did not communicate his own plan for the Middle East in their meeting, if he had one. The patriarch’s words reveal the confusion felt by pro-Western political and religious leaders in Lebanon following the U.S. government’s overwhelming show of support for Israel during that country’s systematic destruction of the infrastructure, economy, and population of Lebanon. After a year of optimistic dialogue with the Bush administration following the 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, the young government in Beirut received only condolences and promises of humanitarian aid from Washington, which chose to let Israel “finish the job” in Lebanon.
The patriarch’s previous visit to the White House had been at the invitation of the President, for consultation during the “Cedar Revolution,” which followed the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, allegedly by Syrian agents. The meeting was symbolic of both the Bush administration’s recognition of the role of the Maronite church in Lebanese politics and the administration’s interest in supporting a pro-Western Christian presence in the Middle East.
While the United States may have lost favor with the Lebanese for delaying in calling for a cease-fire and for selling missiles to Israel at the height of the bloodshed this summer, historically, the Christians of Lebanon have long held both political and religious alliances with Western countries—France, in particular, as well as the Vatican. The strongest denomination in both numbers and political influence is the Maronites, who are proud of the fact that they have remained in communion with the Church of Rome despite hundreds of years of isolation and persecution by Muslims as well as the Byzantine Empire.
During the 15-year civil war, certain factions of the Maronites had done their share of persecuting other religious and political sects, and the Vatican has had to tread carefully in the complicated politics of the Middle Eastern churches. Aware of the temptation that Christians in the Middle East face to tribalize and politicize their religion as other sects have done, Pope John Paul II made a powerful intervention in the aftermath of the war. Following the Taif Accords in 1990, the Vatican convened a synod devoted to Lebanon; instead of burying the country’s shame along with her war dead, the synod encouraged an individual and collective examination of conscience and reconciliation between the warring religious sects. It was the first Catholic synod at which Muslims attended as participants, and it culminated in a lengthy Apostolic exhortation entitled “A New Hope for Lebanon,” signed by John Paul II in 1997 at the historic Our Lady of Lebanon shrine overlooking Beirut, at a Mass attended by 500,000 people, mostly young Christian and Muslim Lebanese.
John Paul had charged those youths to be “the recipients of the message of renewal your church and your country need.” Less than ten years later, the Vatican has reason again to pray for a renewal of Lebanon and to mourn the Holy Land’s loss of its most promising peacemakers. The “moral forces” Pope Benedict seeks to mobilize are fighting a seemingly impossible battle in a land known more for hate than holiness.