scorecardresearch Skip to main content
all things catholic | john l. allen jr.

As Pope pursues peace, Middle East Christians seek survival

Also examining: No common prayer at summit; ‘No Italians need apply’; and the dog not barking in the IVF debate

Muslim and Christian clerics gathered inside a tent to express their solidarity with Syria’s President Bashar Assad on Tuesday.REUTERS

ROME — While Pope Francis tries to strike a delicate balance Sunday on the Israeli/Palestinian front, recent elections in two other Middle Eastern nations have brought reminders not only of how intractable the region’s conflicts seem, but how little some of the pope’s own flock is inclined to emulate his even-handed approach.

In Rome Sunday evening, Pope Francis was scheduled to lead a prayer for peace with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres, following an invitation the pontiff issued during his May 24-26 trip to the Middle East.

In recent days, meanwhile, voters went to the polls in both Egypt and Syria, producing lopsided victories for the favorites in outcomes that were heavily criticized as dubious exercises in democracy.


In both cases, Christians hardly followed the pope’s lead in reaching out to contending factions. Instead they were solidly on the side of leaders who, from the outside, may look like autocrats with bleak records on human rights, but are often perceived by locals as the only firebreak against Islamic radicalism.

In Egypt, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi officially took almost 97 percent of ballots cast, a result dismissed as an “insult to the intelligence of Egyptians” by his opponent. In Syria, elections denounced as a “great big zero” by American Secretary of State John Kerry saw President Bashar Assad claim almost 89 percent of the vote.

Brushing aside doubts about legitimacy, Catholic leaders in Egypt offered an unqualified endorsement of the former military commander’s rise to power.

“El-Sisi is the right man at the right time,” said Bishop Adel Zaky, the apostolic vicar of Alexandria and head of the country’s Latin rite Catholics. “His victory gives us Christians security and a perspective for the future. Better times are coming.”

Zaky spoke in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic charitable group active in the Middle East.


Much the same logic has driven most of Syria’s Christian population, in tandem with other minority groups such as the Alawites and the Druze, solidly into the pro-Assad camp.

In the run-up to the vote, many anti-Assad factions called for a boycott. Yet in a May 30 meeting of the Holy Synod of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, one of the largest Christian bodies in the country, the bishops urged Syrians to take part.

They also stressed coexistence between Muslims and Christians and expressed “gratitude to President Bashar al-Assad for his keenness on providing help” in that regard.

Patriarch Gregory III Laham, leader of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Syria, likewise welcomed the election and said that since Assad’s forces took control of battle zones such as the city of Homs, Christians there “are living in resurrection times.”

It’s not that Christians are blind to the deficits of these regimes, especially in Syria. It’s rather that they see a cold calculus at work — take away the police state, they believe, and annihilation follows.

The most often cited cautionary example is Iraq. Under the heavy-handed rule of Saddam Hussein, Christians faced some forms of discrimination but they were basically secure. Once Hussein fell, Christians became primary victims of the chaos that ensued. From a peak of 1.5 million Christians at the time of the first Gulf War in 1991, the estimate today is that no more than 400,000 are left in the country, and the exodus shows no signs of abating.


Many Christians in Egypt fear the same thing would happen if the Muslim Brotherhood ever returned to power, and Christians in Syria are convinced the same outcome would follow from a rebel victory.

To return to Pope Francis, all this illustrates two points about his peace-making efforts going forward.

First, should the pontiff want to try his hand at brokering other Middle Eastern conflicts, he may find it tricky given perceptions that his own following is clearly in one camp. The Vatican has plenty of experience in taking a more nuanced line than church leaders on the ground, but such subtleties are often lost on outsiders.

Second, the pope repeatedly has voiced concern for persecuted Christians, comparing them to early martyrs of the church and demanding greater respect for religious freedom. At the same time, the first pope named for the peace-loving St. Francis obviously wants to be a reconciler, staying above conflicts and maintaining friendly relations with all sides.

The hard question is what happens when these two impulses clash. What happens, in other words, when one side in a given conflict clearly seems a greater threat to Christians than another? Do you maintain balance, or do you prioritize survival over diplomatic entrée?

Francis doesn’t quite have that dilemma with regard to the Israelis and the Palestinians, since both governments have political and PR reasons for trying to keep their Christians safe, and yet Christians on both sides also have their complaints. In the Palestinian territories, especially the Gaza Strip, Christians fret about Hamas and Islamic militants, while in Israel, Christians grumble about security policies that split families, obstruct access to holy sites, and generally make them feel like second-class citizens.


Yet if not on Sunday, eventually this ambitious, unpredictable pope, who wants to press for peace but also to keep his fellow Christians out of harm’s way, is going to face some difficult choices.

Not praying together, but together to pray

The prayer summit that Pope Francis will host with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres Sunday night is innovative from a diplomatic point of view, because a pope has never before invited the leaders of two nations locked in conflict to join him in the Vatican to invoke peace.

In Catholic circles, there had been intense curiosity as to whether the event would also be innovative theologically, in the sense of whether it would set a new standard regarding the acceptability of interfaith prayer. Ever since Pope John Paul II hosted a summit of religious leaders in Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, in 1986, the church has debated the extent to which it’s legitimate to pray with followers of other religions without the risk of syncretism, meaning blurring religious differences.

Recent papal examples have been a bit ambiguous. For instance, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was among those raising questions about the 1986 event, which saw John Paul II join the Dali Lama, rabbis, muftis, Shintoists, Protestant ministers, animists, and others. Even though they didn’t quite pray together, there was a shared moment of prayer, which prompted Ratzinger, at the time the Vatican’s doctrinal czar, to say, “This cannot be the model!”


When Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, he went to Assisi in 2011 for another interfaith summit but insisted there be no common service. On the other hand, Benedict also traveled to Turkey in late 2006 and paused for a moment of silent prayer in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque alongside the Grand Mufti, Mustafa Cagrici.

Against that backdrop, experts were waiting to see how Pope Francis would handle Sunday’s event. At least judging by the Vatican’s explanation of what’s going to happen, however, no policy shift is in the cards.

As Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa explained it, there will be no single shared prayer. Instead, there will be three different moments of prayer — one for Jews, one for Christians, and one for Muslims. Abbas, Peres, and the pope, who will be joined by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the “first among equals” in the Orthodox world, will listen respectfully to the others’ prayers but will take part only in their own.

Pizzaballa is the Franciscan Custodian of the Holy Land, and was asked by Pope Francis to arrange the details of Sunday’s encounter.

“They won’t be praying together,” Pizzaballa said during a Friday Vatican briefing. “They will be together in order to pray.”

Pizzaballa said the event is not an instance of “interreligious prayer,” because Abbas and Peres are offering their prayers as leaders of the Palestinians and the Israelis, not as representatives of their faiths.

The format, Pizzaballa said, is designed to “to avoid any forms of syncretism.”

Reading between the lines, it seemed clear Pizzaballa wanted to short-circuit any possibility that more traditional Catholics might perceive Sunday’s gathering as quasi-heretical. It remains to be seen if the cautions will do the trick, and whether the notoriously spontaneous Francis might do something unscripted, creating new possibilities, perhaps, but also, in some quarters, dismay.

‘No Italians need apply’

Pope Francis comes from a family of Italian immigrants in Argentina, and it’s clear he relishes his heritage.

He uses Italian almost exclusively in his public remarks, he’s forever calling up ordinary Italians who have written him, the extended interviews he’s given have all been with Italian news outlets, and this summer he’ll visit both Cassano all’Jonio in Calabria on June 21 and the diocese of Campobasso and Isernia in the country’s midsection on July 5.

Perhaps because he feels so much at home here, however, Francis also seems capable of taking a clear-eyed look at his adopted land. When it comes to money management, the pope hasn’t quite put up a “no Italians need apply” sign, but his desire to “de-Italianize” the operation is obvious.

On Wednesday, news broke that an Australian Catholic business manager named Danny Casey will lead a project management office in the new Secretariat for the Economy, working under his old boss from Sydney, Cardinal George Pell.

Privately there was some grumbling, since hiring people on the basis of friendship and loyalty, rather than using a transparent process and objective standards, was always part of the bill of indictment against the old guard. Yet Casey has a solid track record in Sydney of growing church assets, and in any event he’s been advising Pell since his February appointment anyway, so the hire simply brings the arrangement out into the open.

On Thursday, Francis named four new directors for the Financial Information Authority, or AIF, an anti-money-laundering watchdog agency created under Pope Benedict XVI. Before, the directors were entirely Italian; the new lineup includes people from the United States, Switzerland, and Singapore, in addition to one Italian.

The American is Juan C. Zarate, a Harvard professor and a former deputy National Security Advisor who specialized in antiterrorism and combatting financial crimes during the administration of President George W. Bush.

In part, the internationalization campaign is a product of the mandate Francis got from the conclave of 2013, which was to break up a Vatican regime held responsible for several governance miscues during the Benedict years. Because that regime was heavily Italian, flushing it out almost by definition means going more global.

In part, too, it’s a reflection of the fact that while Italy has a long list of virtues, transparency in finance isn’t notably among them. Last month seven managers and former members of parliament were arrested in a corruption scandal centering on next year’s World Fair in Milan, and just this week the mayor of Venice and more than 30 other officials were arrested for allegedly taking as much as $34 million in bribes related to the city’s multibillion dollar flood control project.

Whatever the explanation, the fact is that Francis now has an Australian running his finance ministry, a Swiss lawyer heading up his anti-money-laundering agency, a German businessman running his bank, not to mention people from 12 countries making up his Council for the Economy and experts from four nations sitting on the supervisory panel for his financial intelligence unit.

There are a few Italians in the new mix, such as Tommaso di Ruzza, the son-in-law of a former head of Italy’s central bank who was recently named to the number two position at AIF, but these days such locals are more conspicuous by their absence.

The seemingly inescapable conclusion is that while this pope loves Italians, he doesn’t fully trust them with his checkbook.

Critics of Vatican bureaucracy from around the world have clamored for precisely this sort of overhaul for decades. Now it’s “put up or shut up” time, because there probably are some in il bel paese who wouldn’t be entirely disappointed to see the experiment fail.

Dog not barking in IVF debate

Sherlock Holmes fans know the reference to “the dog that didn’t bark,” a shorthand way of saying that when something ordinarily would be expected to happen but didn’t, that’s often the most telling clue to what’s going on.

Italy at the moment is experiencing its own version of the dog that didn’t bark in terms of the dismantling of Law 40, a controversial measure adopted in 2004 that severely restricted fertility treatments.

On April 9, Italy’s constitutional court ruled that a portion of the law barring sperm and egg donation was unconstitutional. In practice, the ban meant that only a couple using their own genetic materials could conceive a child using in-vitro techniques. In the wake of the ruling, fertility clinics are slated to begin providing sperm and egg donations this month.

The 2004 law also banned fertility treatments for single people, same-sex couples, and women over child-bearing age. It was adopted under conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and was hailed as a great victory for the Catholic Church. The powerful Italian bishops conference, CEI, led the charge, with the explicit backing of the Vatican under the ailing Pope John Paul II.

When debate in the Italian parliament reached a crescendo in December 2003, the leader of the faction in favor of the restrictive measure rallied his troops by urging them “to give a Christmas present to the pope!”

In 2005, critics mustered enough signatures to get a referendum to repeal the law on a national ballot. Cardinal Camillo Ruini, at the time the president of CEI and one of the most powerful aides to John Paul II, led a campaign to defeat the measure by persuading people to abstain from the vote. When the turnout was well below the level required for a quorum, Ruini and the church claimed another historic breakthrough.

Now the law is being gutted by a series of court rulings, with many experts saying the country today has a virtual legislative vacuum on fertility issues.

The “curious incident” in the story, to use the proper Sherlock Holmes argot, is that neither the Vatican nor the Italian bishops have mounted anything like the protests one would have expected not so long ago.

Granted, a couple of days after the April 9 ruling Pope Francis met with a Catholic group that supports infants and said, “It’s important to confirm the right of children to grow up in a family, with a father and a mother capable of creating a worthy environment for their development and affective maturation. [Children should] continue to mature in relationship to the masculinity and femininity of a father and a mother.”

The pope made no mention, however, of Law 40, and no reference to the church’s negative judgment on IVF, which is regarded as illicit because it involves the creation and destruction of so-called surplus embryos.

A commentator in one Italian paper recently marveled that only “a few isolated Catholic voices” have been heard in the wake of the ruling, with virtually nobody in officialdom speaking out. It took Ruini coming out of retirement to publicly express “dissent” from the court’s decision.

Perhaps the silence reflects a political calculation that the handwriting is on the wall, and there’s no sense fighting battles one is destined to lose. Perhaps it reflects the new spirit of the Francis era, in which the Catholic Church is destined to be less invested in the culture wars and more in matters of the social gospel.

Whatever the case, the absence of barking over Law 40 seems a clue worth considering.

John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and on Facebook