As Baghdad and other Iraqi cities fell to U.S.-led forces, the Vatican said the collapse of President Saddam Hussein’s regime was an opportunity for the Iraqi people and offered to help in the massive humanitarian task that lies ahead. At the same time, church officials said the reconstruction of Iraq was a job for the international community, not for a single country, and expressed alarm that the fighting so far had left a power vacuum.
Pope John Paul II expressed his sadness at the continuing “destruction and death” in Iraq on April 9. After a Mass on April 13, Palm Sunday, the pope prayed in a special way for the many young people in Iraq who were suffering from the war and the violence.
The Vatican’s official reaction to the fall of Baghdad emphasized hopes for the future rather than the devastation of a war the Holy See strongly opposed. It said the departure of Saddam’s government marked a “significant opportunity for the population’s future.... Now that Iraq’s material, political and social reconstruction is coming into view, the Catholic Church is ready to lend the necessary assistance through its social and charitable institutions,” the Vatican said in a statement on April 10. “The dioceses in Iraq are also prepared to offer their own structures to contribute to a fair distribution of humanitarian aid,” it said.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, said that along with reconstruction in Iraq, the international community must devote itself to rebuilding the credibility of the United Nations. “We are a family of nations. We have to cooperate; this is the destiny of peoples,” Cardinal Sodano told reporters on April 11. The cardinal said the Vatican, which did everything it could to prevent the U.S.-led war, was now hoping for a successful rebuilding of peace and especially of Muslim-Christian relations.
Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said that despite the current crisis facing the United Nations the international body is still essential to world order and must be reformed to strengthen its “authoritativeness.” The archbishop, who served for 16 years as the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations, said the international community should “adopt realism and good sense—as well as a certain dose of creative courage—to reinforce the United Nations and adapt its structure and mentality to the high purpose which underlies it.”
In Baghdad, the Vatican’s ambassador said the collapse of the Saddam regime had left a power vacuum that opened the way to looting and created uncertainty over the country’s political future. Speaking on April 10 to Fides, the Vatican’s missionary news service, Archbishop Fernando Filoni said Iraq’s Christians were sharing the same hardships as the majority Muslim population. During the three weeks of coalition bombing in Baghdad, the nuncio said, many poorer Iraqis—Christian and Muslim—took refuge in churches and parish buildings. The Vatican was one of the few states to keep open its embassy in Baghdad during the conflict.
In early April, representatives of the church’s global charity confederation, Caritas Internationalis, made a first assessment of the critical humanitarian situation in Umm Qasr, the only city in war-torn Iraq declared safe at that time by coalition forces. Alistair Dutton, who headed the Caritas Internationalis team, said that the southern port city of 40,000 people still faced security problems and shortages of clean water, despite a new pipeline that delivers 625,000 gallons of water daily. Later in the week, church aid officials expressed alarm that Iraqi hospitals were being looted of essential equipment and supplies.
On April 11, Caritas Iraq reported that church material in Baghdad had so far not been damaged in the looting, but said many people had sought safety at Caritas centers and parish buildings. It said the humanitarian situation was critical in the capital.
Meanwhile, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Basra showed journalists what he called “the gift I have received from Bush.” Archbishop Djibrail Kassab put a label—“April 3, 2:30 a.m.”—on a piece of shrapnel from a U.S. weapon. The fragment had landed at the foot of his bed during a bombing raid on foreign ministry offices about 30 yards away. The archbishop said he was not hurt.Iraqi War Causes More Radicalism in Southern Philippines
The war in Iraq has further “radicalized” separatists in the southern Philippines, including Muslim youths who may decide to join or even start terrorist groups, said a Philippine archbishop. Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato said the increase in “terrorist acts” on Mindanao Island reflects this radicalization of “fringe elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as well as some Muslim youth.” The archbishop is president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. Bomb attacks in Davao City killed at least 38 people in March and early April and injured some 200. The night after an explosion on April 2 on the city’s Sasa Wharf, three mosques were damaged by grenades and gunfire. In October 2002, several explosions hit Zamboanga City; 18 people were killed.Catholic Officials Pleased With Senate Faith-Based Bill
Catholic officials are endorsing legislation, passed overwhelmingly by the Senate on April 9, that aims to help charity organizations provide social services. The legislation—the Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act of 2003, or CARE Act—will provide tax breaks to corporations and to individuals who do not currently itemize on their taxes for giving charitable donations. It will also give technical assistance to faith-based and community groups that want to offer social services, will restore $1.3 billion in funding for the social services block grants and authorizes $33 million to establish group maternity homes for young mothers.
The legislation, approved in a 95-to-5 vote, does not contain some of the bill’s initial language, which would have made it clear that religious groups providing social services cannot be excluded from government contracts just for having a religious name or displaying religious symbols.
Sharon Daly, vice president for social policy for Catholic Charities USA, said Catholic Charities was disappointed that the provision clarifying religious social service providers was dropped from the bill, but called the bipartisan legislation a “useful step in implementing the president’s faith-based and community initiatives proposal.” Daly also said the legislation would “strengthen the partnership between federal government and community-based and faith-based organizations.”
Although the White House said it supports the legislation, it objects to the increased funds for social services block grants. John Carr, secretary of social development and world peace for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was pleased with the Senate passage of the CARE Act, but said he was “deeply disappointed” with the Bush administration’s opposition to increased block grants. “We will work in the days ahead,” he said, for a bill that includes “important new incentives for charitable giving and essential resources for those in need.”
Catholic Charities is likewise urging the House to quickly pass a similar measure that would include both tax incentives for charitable giving and provide the necessary funds for social services block grants. Daly said that restoring the block-grant funding is “especially crucial given our faltering economy and severe fiscal crises facing the states.” She said that through the block grants, states receive federal funds they can use to provide community groups and religious agencies with resources to assist working families, abused and abandoned children, persons with disabilities and the frail elderly.Vatican Wants Equal Time for World’s Simmering Wars
Unprecedented news coverage has brought the war in Iraq into living rooms around the globe. Now the Vatican wants equal time for many of the “off-screen” wars simmering in more than 30 other countries. In early April the Vatican missionary news agency, Fides, published a 22-page dossier to draw attention to the “silent wars” around the globe. The agency complained that, judging by newspaper headlines and running television coverage, Iraq was the only war worth reporting—or worth protesting.News Briefs
Robert G. Hoyt, founding editor of The National Catholic Reporter, died in New York City on April 10 following a heart attack.
A coalition of Ukrainian church groups petitioned the United Nations to declare that a Soviet-orchestrated famine in the 1930’s was an “act of genocide.”
The Kenyan bishops have joined other faith groups in forming a committee to help end the practice of female genital mutilation. “By being silent on the subject of female genital mutilation, faith-based organizations have propagated the continuation” of the practice, said a statement released by the group in April. Joining the Kenyan bishops on the committee was the Anglican Church of Kenya, the Methodist Church, the African Independent Pentecostal Churches and the Supreme Council of Muslims in Kenya.
The most basic rights of Iraqi children have been violated repeatedly by 12 years of economic sanctions and by the U.S.-led war, mainline Christian organizations told the U.N. Commission on Human Rights on April 14. The statement was delivered by Dominicans for Justice and Peace on behalf of the World Council of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Canadian Council of Churches, the Catholic Caritas Internationalis and five Catholic religious orders.