Will the pope’s US visit prove transformational for Syria?
Washington - “The most popular man in the world,” as US Vice-President Joe Biden called Pope Francis, took a message to Washington that some might consider alien to the city of cut-throat politics and immense power, real and imagined.
The pope arrived from Cuba, where he told people in Havana’s Great Cathedral to “embrace poverty and mercy”. He was received by US President Barack Obama, whom the pope had persuaded to open relations with Cuba in 2014. On welcoming Francis to the White House, Obama thanked him for his “valuable support of our new beginning with the Cuban people”.
At the White House ceremony, which was attended by 15,000 people, Francis spoke about immigration as a “son of immigrants”, of freedom being one of “America’s most precious possessions” and the urgency of addressing climate change, which, he said, “can no longer be left to a future generation”. The pope also spoke of the poor and the marginalised and the importance of mercy.
These concerns occupied the leaders when they met one-on-one in the Oval Office. Some in Washington hoped that Francis might convince Obama to take more historic steps, as the two are not far apart when it comes to issues of war and peace.
Indeed, the pope and Obama have very similar world views. They both see themselves, and are seen by others, as transformational figures. Obama shares with Francis a sense of justice and concern about inequality, poverty and climate change.
However, they differ on other issues, from same-sex marriage to abortion. An unnamed Vatican official raised objections when the White House invited to the welcoming ceremony a transgender activist, the first gay Episcopal bishop and a nun who criticises church policy on abortion and euthanasia. Although later an official, also unnamed, said it would be the White House — not the pope — that would be embarrassed if the visit was politicised.
By focusing on issues that touch the lives of people around the world, Francis has become extremely popular. A poll published ahead of his visit indicated that US Catholics overwhelmingly approve the direction in which the pope is leading the church. A huge majority of respondents, 84%, said they appreciate his concern for the poor; 68% stated approval of his position on the environment; and 60% supported his position on immigration issues.
But it was on the issue of war that the Nobel Peace Prize-winner Obama and the pope had the most interesting conversation. The president gave it away in his remarks when he thanked Francis for his “passionate voice against the deadly conflicts that ravage the lives of so many men, women and children and our call for nations to resist the sirens of war and resolve disputes through diplomacy”. Obama seemed in sync with the pope on immigration when he spoke of “welcoming the stranger with empathy and a true open heart”.
Pope Francis carried his message to Congress, where he made a plea for unity and cooperation and invoked the “Golden Rule” — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In his address before the United Nations on September 26th, the pope focused on poverty, political inclusion and peace but most prominently on protecting the environment.
The most moving event of the pope’s New York visit was at the site of the 9/11 terrorist attack, where he met with families of the victims and prayed with representatives of different religions, including a Muslim imam and Jewish rabbi.
Francis who, as the New York Times quipped, “has no army or to update a cliché no carrier-busting missiles and relatively few US Treasury bonds in his portfolio”, has shown toughness people expected from the leader of the free world on issues such as Syria and Iraq.
In 2014, he made a historic decision for the Vatican by calling for Western military intervention against the Islamic State (ISIS). The pope considered the use of force “legitimate to stop an unjust aggressor”.
He emphasised that force should be used only through the United Nations. The Vatican’s representative in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, went further, saying “we have to stop this kind of genocide”.
The Vatican understandably is especially concerned about the fate of Christians in Syria and Iraq. Pope Francis has declared 2015 “the Year of Mercy”.
Francis may, in fact, be Syria’s best hope, if it is revealed one day that he convinced Obama to take action and stop the carnage. The issue is greater than simply the fate of the Christians in the Middle East.
It is now an immigration and security crisis for Europe. The pope has called on Europe’s Catholic churches to shelter refugees and to set an example of mercy. He also voiced concern over the danger of ISIS terrorists infiltrating Europe through the refugee influx.
The Syrian conflict and the refugee problem were no doubt central to the private conversation between Francis and Obama. Hopefully, “Year of Mercy” for Syria and the Middle East will be more than a slogan.