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Forum: The pope's push for peace

Jerome M. Vereb examines the urgent mission of John Paul II to prevent a cataclysmic war

Sunday, March 02, 2003

Pope John Paul II is laboring tirelessly, at this moment, for peace. This fact hardly comes to popular attention, and his efforts are dismissed as superfluous by some. Still, the pontiff works with an urgency that conveys a genuine personal concern. Why?

  The Rev. Jerome M. Vereb, C.P., a priest from Pittsburgh, is a former member of the Vatican's Secretariat for Christian Unity and a former consultant to the U.S. embassy to the Vatican. He is the co-author of "Pilgrim Pope," a book on the travels of Pope John Paul II. 

Last Sunday, Pope John Paul II stood at the window of his study during the time of the noon Angelus prayer to plead once again for world peace. He called for Ash Wednesday, March 5, to be celebrated as a day of "universal prayer and fasting" in the shadow of an American war with Iraq, a war which diplomats fear to be a world war given the sharp international divisions regarding a pre-emptive strike by the United States.

Only the day before, the pontiff received Prime Minister Tony Blair in private. His message to him was terse and pleading. "Do something," he said.

The week before, while the Vatican ambassador extraordinary, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, traveled to Baghdad on behalf of the pope for talks with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz was received in private audience by Pope John Paul. The following day, Feb. 15, he traveled to Assisi, the city of St. Francis, perhaps one of Christianity's most enduring symbols of peace. There he was given the ivory horn which had been presented to St. Francis by the Sultan of Egypt, Melek el-Kemel, in 1219. It had been used by the Franciscan friars as a summons to prayer in place of a bell, from that day to the present. A more precious relic surely could not have been sent to the people of Iraq. "My message is peace," said Aziz, a Chaldean Christian, who then went off to venerate the body of St. Francis and pray before the tomb.

Photographs of the occasion show the Iraqi envoy looking awkward and slightly uncomfortable. And so they should. Only the day before Aziz had refused to take questions from an Israeli reporter. The rudeness of his posture sent shock waves everywhere, for surely this is an ecumenical and enlightened age. After 50 years in which mutual collaboration in matters of religion has come to the surface, a brush-off is condsidered neither polite nor appropriate behavior, especially during a diplomatic mission.

In the meantime, Pope John Paul II, despite physical infirmity, labors tirelessly for the cause of world peace. In this, he is like his predecessors, Pius X and Pius XI, who so exhausted themselves in the process of trying to prevent world war that they died. At the time of this writing, it is hoped and anticipated that Cardinal Etchegaray may be able to visit the United States this week or next to lay the pontiff's plea directly before President Bush.

Behind all this is the pope's personal experience with war. As a young man, he saw the bombs fall upon his city. He knew the terrors of arbitrary governorship, but most of all, like every Pole during those years, he lived under fear.

Thus, on Jan. 13 he said to the Vatican diplomats: "War itself is an attack on human life, since it brings in its wake suffering and death. A battle for peace is always a battle for life." In language that recalls Pope Paul VI, before the United Nations in 1965, he declared: "No to war! War is not always inevitable! It is always a defeat for humanity! International law, honest dialogue, solidarity between the states, the noble exercise of diplomacy: these are the methods whereby individuals and nations engage in resolving their differences."

Unlike his predecessors, John Paul II makes this pronouncement in what is an "ecumenical age," the goal of which is strengthening the bond between believers. This has been a consistent theme of all his papal travels. In answer to the question -- "What is that bond?" -- he has replied: the sacred texts all converge on "peace." This is the essence of all religion.

The Jewish greeting is the word "shalom." The Christian uses "pax." The Muslim exclaims "salaam." All three words signify peace. When used colloquially, they are quite literally translated as "friend." The semitic languages identify the greeter as "my man of peace." Islam is defined as "submitting to peace." Herein lies the core concept of The Prophet, Mohammed.

The implications are obvious. The term is more than a casual gesture. It says to the one greeted, "You are not my enemy." It conveys something of the presence of God.

Psalm 40, a text common to all three religions, expresses horror at the individual who turns on his companion. "Even my friend who had my trust and partook of my bread has raised his heel against me." Imagine someone kicking God or God's friend. It is sacrilegious! On this point, all three religions are unanimous. In a recently published primer on the Muslim faith, the French novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun describes to his children the militant actions of al-Qaida as a distortion of their religion, and claims Osama Bin Laden and his disciples have "used a religion of peace to make war on modernity and the West."

The Organization of the Islamic Conference lists 57 Muslim nations. That is a staggering number. Hidden within the raw data are these basic empirical points. Almost all of these nations are governed by a secular Muslim leadership who do not actually disclose the faith of their citizens. Many have been arbitrarily established by 19th-century colonial powers. There is a cleavage between the population and the leader.

Iraq, a product of Great Britain, is just such a state. Its membership consists of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Like their counterparts in the OIC, they all look back to the Islam of the so-called "Golden Age," from the 8th to 11th century, a time characterized by peace, discovery, piety and learning. This Golden Age had no time for sacrilege.

Twentieth-century diplomacy never acknowledged this historical fact. Nor has it appreciated the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the fall of the office of Caliph, who symbolizes Islam's great ideals in piety and practicality. At the conclusion of both world wars, in the Treaty of Versailles and at the Tehran Conference, the interests of Islam were never seriously placed on the table, and no Muslim was invited to represent the values of the Prophet Mohammed.

Western leaders have consistently treated the many flare-ups of the Middle East as an itch which simply will not go away.

It came as a shock in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini and his Iranian Revolution burst across the television screen presenting Islam as a political force. That event was a veritable watershed, for it displayed an attitude common throughout the 57 Muslim nations, which was one of resentment for the inattention paid to their treasury of the Islamic faith of the Golden Era. The bond of faith that unites these countries is founded on a common, resilient piety.

In these days of heightened security and fear, let it be remembered that in the history of Islam, Baghdad is precious. It represents the Golden Age, more than a treasured memory for the believers of Islam. It reiterates the late Rabbi Abraham Heschel's principle, "No religion is an island."

Religion is at the basis of all culture. This is also the belief of Pope John Paul II. The three monotheistic faiths embrace peace as a core and common truth. Peace displays components of compassion, harmony, illumination and joy which must be fostered and prayed for. In 1986, leaders of these three religious traditions came together with others at Assisi to pray that famous prayer of St. Francis: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace."

For this very reason, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice addressed President Bush and members of Congress at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 6, "And in the Hadith, we find Muhammad saying: 'No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.' " On the evidence of the foregoing, let these rumors and threats of war give way to multiple and mighty vigils of intense prayer for peace.

Let the message of the pontiff not go unheeded. He too says, "Salaam."

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