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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Corridors of Power: Vatican seeking to calm cartoon conflict

Roland Flamini

WASHINGTON -- Vatican diplomats have launched a world-wide campaign to reduce the tension over the Mohammed cartoons using the Holy See's extensive but little known diplomatic network. As an independent sovereign state the Vatican has diplomatic relations with 174 countries -- including most of the Arab nations and Iran -- with ambassadors (usually known as papal nuncios) in the capitals of most of them.

The Vatican's diplomatic branch goes back centuries, but under Pope John Paul II it increased in both importance and size as a result of Pope John Paul II's deep involvement in international politics. In his papacy the number of countries with diplomatic relations with the Vatican almost doubled. Pope Benedict XVI has said he wants to extend the network even further, and the Vatican has its eye on China and Saudi Arabia.

Vatican sources said diplomatic representatives in Islamic countries, including Pakistan, Indonesia, Syria, Iraq, and Algeria have been pressing Islamic governments to take decisive steps to halt the violence that has swept the Middle East to protest the publication of 12 cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed, with some of them depicting him as a terrorist. In the Islamic faith it is considered blasphemy to show images of the Prophet in a hagiographic way, let alone in satiric cartoons.

The nuncios have campaigned with their usual discretion, but some indication of the Vatican's position came from Pope Benedict himself Tuesday when he received a new Moroccan ambassador to the Vatican, Ali Achour, who presented his credentials. The pope began by firmly (if indirectly) criticizing the Danish newspaper and other European publications that published the cartoons in the name of freedom of expression, but then the pontiff went on to call for a halt to the protest demonstrations.

"It is necessary and important that religions and their respective symbols be treated with respect, and that believers are not provoked (with acts) that wound their religious sentiments," Pope Benedict declared. But the "responses to such offenses" must not be "intolerance and violence." He said the protests that had erupted across the Islamic world causing willful damage and even death was "a deliberate exploitation of the offense to religious sentiments to foment acts of violence."

This week, the pope reinforced the Vatican's representation in the Islamic world by appointing one of its leading specialists on Islam as representative to the Cairo-based Arab League and the Egyptian government. He is British-born Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who recently called for a panel of Vatican and Muslim scholars to examine the legacy of the Christian-Muslim conflict to build historical consensus.

"It is a question that needs to be addressed," he was quoted as saying. "How do we read history? Can we read history together and come to some common understanding?" The Rome-based Religious News Service, which specializes in Vatican coverage, reported on Feb. 17 that "there are signs that the Vatican has already begun reviewing its understanding of the Muslim-Christian legacy, but it is unclear whether the push will ultimately lead to a consensus, even within the Vatican."

Benedict XVI has publicly called for increased dialogue with Islam, and announced on Feb 9 that he will visit Turkey in late November. Vatican sources pointed out that the pope had chosen a predominantly Muslim country for his first trip outside Europe. But the visit is sure to be marked by controversy because of comments the pontiff had made when he was Cardinal Joseph Raqtzinger openly arguing against Turkey's aspirations to become a member of the European Union. Since then the German-born cardinal has been elected pope, and negotiations have begun for Turkey's admission to the European Union.

Two years ago, Vatican diplomats launched a major effort to persuade EU members to include a reference to Europe's Christian roots in the preamble of the draft European constitution. The attempt failed, with some members arguing that the European Union was a lay body, and others that such a statement would not apply to Turkey once it had become a member. However, the main role of Vatican diplomacy is generally to spread the church's message on morality and social justice, to defend Catholic minorities, particularly in the Arab world, and to protect the holy places, especially in the Middle East. Its vast collection of information through the network of the local clergy is legendary, and nuncios are reputed to be among the best informed diplomats in the business.

What diplomatic ties mean for the Catholic Church government's partners, most of them non-Catholic, is rather harder to gauge. Henry Cabot Lodge, a one-time U.S. representative to the Holy See once asked an Arab colleague his non-Christian country felt it necessary to maintain an embassy at the Vatican. The Aran diplomat replied, "We want to make sure we don't miss anything."

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