Though largely ignored by diplomats and the media, the Vatican summit on the "post-war Gulf," held March 4-6 in Rome, may one day be recalled as an historic turning point in the Catholic Church's involvement in the Middle East.
As Pope John Paul II observed, the meeting of 15 Catholic leaders from the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and America, brought together "the pastors of a people who yesterday were fighting each other." But more importantly, these pastors for the first time spoke with one voice and articulated a common moral and political framework for Middle East peace.
If taken seriously by Catholic believers, the final summit communique would commit the world's largest religious body to an agenda that includes secure boundaries for Israel, independence and unity for Lebanon, a homeland and self-determination for the Palestinians, multilateral demilitarization and economic development of the region, and the establishment of Jerusalem as the international "holy city" of Muslims, Christians and Jews.
A New Vision
The weeks since the summit have seen a flurry of Catholic diplomatic and interreligious activity. It would seem that the summit has emboldened the church and given it a new vision of Middle Eastern affairs.
In an unusually frank letter to UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, dated March 21, the pope said that Catholic leaders "expect an energetic international commitment" to the "other major problems of the Middle East" which preceded Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf war.
The pope conveyed to Mr. de Cuellar the anger of Middle Eastern church officials, who have condemned the world community for waging a war to enforce UN resolutions concerning Kuwait, while ignoring similar resolutions on Palestine and Lebanon. The sufferings of the Palestinians and Lebanese, the pope stressed, "have endured, in all their dramatic reality, despite numerous resolutions by the United Nations."
Catholic leaders have also moved to show the church's solidarity with the faithful of Islam. On April 16, at the conclusion of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, John Paul took the unprecedented step of issuing a papal message to the world's Muslims.
The pope affirmed "the readiness of the Catholic Church to work together" with Muslims and others "to build structures of a lasting peace." Seeking concordance with those Muslims who, like him, had opposed both Iraq's invasion and the Gulf war, John Paul said, "The path of those who believe in God and desire to serve him is not that of domination. It is the way of peace."
Since the summit, there has also been evidence of a renewed Catholic commitment to collaborating with Muslims in the search for a solution to the Palestinian question. On March 14, the pope discussed the issue with a Palestinian interfaith team headed by the highest ranking Muslim in the region, Mufti Sa'ad Al-Din Al-Alami of Jerusalem, and the highest ranking Catholic, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, also of Jerusalem.
The group used its audience with the pope as a highly public platform for condemning Israel's "inhuman measures" in the occupied territories, which the group said "grossly violated" Palestinian human rights. The group demanded "international protection" from Israeli brutality and called for "the termination of the Israeli occupation and the establishment of the Palestinian state."
The church's renewed confidence and tenacity on the issue of Middle East peace can best be seen as a direct result of the post-war Vatican summit. The pope and most Catholic leaders had opposed the war against Iraq as morally unjustifiable and practically incapable of bringing about peace in the region. As the pope said in a talk to Vatican diplomats before the war, "Without entering into the profound causes of violence in this part of the world, a peace obtained by arms could only prepare new acts of violence."
In his opening address at the summit, Pope John Paul said the 43-day war had confirmed his worst fears: "Yesterday's problems are not resolved or do not even know the beginnings of a solution. …