So what did Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis secretly discuss in the Vatican?
In the West, the image of the Pontiff sitting down with Putin was unacceptable as Ukrainian Greek Catholics and many in the U.S. criticized the Pope for refusing to condemn Moscow as an “aggressor”.
So is the Pope wrong and evil for meeting with Putin?
The best way to answer this question is to use the method Jesus used, that is to answer a question with a question. Was John Paul who feared that the U.S. invasion of Iraq would be a disaster for Christians in the Middle East wrong? Few at the time objected and were painted as “wrong” and “plainly evil”.
After both of Bush’s and the pro-Muslim Brotherhood, Barack Hussein Obama’s policies in the Middle East, ancient communities and holy sites have been destroyed, millions displaced and bishops were murdered. The major rift between the Vatican and Washington began with the invasion of Iraq when Pope John Paul II argued vociferously against sending U.S. troops to oust Saddam Hussein while the perceived Evangelical type President George W. Bush “spoke and behaved as if he was divinely inspired and seemed genuinely to believe that it was a war of right against wrong…”
So was the Christian Bush truly communicating with God? Which of the two was wrong?
George W. Bush became the face of American evangelical Christianity during his eight-year presidency. From his campaign debate statement that Jesus was the philosopher, he identified with the most “because he changed my heart” to his claim that he had “more of a theological perspective” on the Iraq War, Bush’s faith and religious remarks are still discussed at length by pundits and believers alike.
The Pope, who was ruthlessly criticized by many, at the time even sent a personal envoy, Cardinal Pio Laghi, to bring his case to President George W. Bush on March 5, 2003 to no avail. “I had the impression that they had already decided,” the veteran diplomat told a group in Italy months later. I asked him, ‘Do you realize the consequences of occupying Iraq? The confusion; the fighting between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds.’” Apparently, he did not. Laghi was right and Bush was dead wrong.
The U.S. invasion was a disaster for Christians in the Middle East. Just as the Vatican predicted, ancient communities and holy sites have been destroyed, millions displaced and bishops murdered.
Today, the same American proponents of invading Iraq are promoting military escalation on Ukraine’s eastern border.
Are they right this time?
The United States is planning to send warplanes to Europe in order to stop Russia’s “aggression” in the region, says US Air Force Secretary Deborah James while describing Moscow as “the biggest threat” in the region, James said it is “extremely worrisome on what’s going” on in Ukraine.
The situation is dire. Russia-West relations took a downturn this week when Moscow warned that any stationing of military equipment along its border with Europe could have “dangerous consequences” and President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would add more than 40 ballistic missiles to its nuclear arsenal this year.
At a military and arms fair on Tuesday, Putin announced the addition of the intercontinental ballistic missiles which, he said, were able to overcome “even the most technically advanced anti-missile defense systems,” Reuters reported.
Thus, the Vatican’s diplomatic brain trust—namely, Francis, Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States—are correctly determined to defuse the “atmosphere of war” enveloping Ukraine.
Another example is Belarus when U.S. policy since 2004 has been largely antagonistic toward the Alexander Lukashenko regime, including the imposition of various sanctions for undemocratic practices. Meanwhile, the Vatican has steadily improved working relations with Belarus, where 15 percent of the population is Catholic. Rome has encouraged Belarus to play a positive role as host to peace talks between Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union. The Minsk II agreement governing the current ceasefire is evidence of the country’s progress, according to Parolin.
Another U.S. blunder, and is the reason for Putin meeting with the Pope, is in Syria. Both Francis and Putin, working with and through their respective churches coordinated to thwart U.S. intervention in Syria. In 2013, Washington, as did Bush in Iraq, falsely accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. One of these accusations is the killing of more than 1,400 people in a chemical weapons attack and warned of military intervention.
Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who broke the story of the My Lai massacre and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, reported that the Assad regime might not be responsible for the chemical weapons attacks in Syria. He stressed that the Obama administration and other senior level American officials knew this while they were making the case against Assad.
According to the article that Hersh published in the London Review of Books it was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has been supporting al Nusra Front terror group alongside other opposition rebel groups. The fact that Turkey is supporting the opposition in the Syrian civil war is no secret. However, a former senior level U.S. intelligence official told Hersh that there were some in the Turkish government who “believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat.”
Hersh claims that the Obama administration knew quite well that claims that only the Syrian army had access to sarin were wrong. “The American and British intelligence communities had been aware since the spring of 2013 that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons,” Hersh wrote. He reported that a classified document confirmed that al Nusra maintained a sarin production cell and it was the “most advanced sarin plot since Al Qaeda’s pre-9/11 effort.”
And just as the U.S. was wrong about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, so was the U.S. alongside many Evangelicals who were for the war, all were acting as if God wills it, and all were dead wrong.
The Vatican correctly urged the West to intensify diplomacy without resorting to armed aggression. Putin also and correctly maintained an aggressive public campaign against potential U.S. bombing of Syria and, days later, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced a plan to transfer Syria’s chemical weapons to international control—thus diverting the U.S. from military retaliation.
It was Francis and Putin who met for the first time in person, less than two months after the crisis, where Syria was at the top of their agenda. It was ongoing collaboration in Syria and Lebanon between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches and their communication up the ladder that provoked the churches’ engagement, but the result was a sense, in the Vatican, that Putin honors his commitment to protect the Christian communities in the Middle East—an alliance the Vatican wants and needs.
Since then, besides a summit in Damascus of leaders of the five major Orthodox and Catholic Churches held last week, Russia and Vatican are collaborating on humanitarian aid to help Christians survive during the war.
The other factor at play is the Ukrainian Catholic population. The Pope is meeting with Putin to model the behavior he expects from his flock in Ukraine. It’s Bible 101: Love your enemy. While many observers expected the Pope to align himself with Western Ukraine because the 5.4 million believers in the Catholic Church, which has a high-profile presence there through the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), an energetic church that was banned and persecuted under Communism.
Together with other faiths, the UGCC was active throughout the Maidan protests, which led to the collapse of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime. Therefore, it was expected that the Holy See will promote the view that Russia is the aggressor against Ukraine, and must be repelled.
Instead, Francis has been concerned about blocking a war that pits Christians in Western Ukraine against Christians in the Donbas region, where most people belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, are allied with Moscow. In February, Francis referred to “this horrible fratricidal violence” in Ukraine adding, “Think: This is a war among Christians! You all share one baptism! You are fighting with Christians. Think about this scandal.” He has also warned Ukrainian Catholic bishops not to politicize the Church in the heat of crisis, according to a statement released by the Vatican.
Since the fall of Communism, successive popes have dreamed of meeting the Russian Orthodox Patriarch on Russian soil. It would be a powerful sign that Christianity had overcome a central historical rupture allowing the Church “to breath with two lungs,” in Pope John Paul’s words. Flying back from Turkey last year, Francis said, “I told Patriarch Kirill, we can meet wherever you want, you call me and I’ll come.”
Regardless of what we critique the Pope with, when it comes Francis’ decision-making and skepticism of U.S. foreign policy, it was the right decision.