Pope Francis, in the Central African Republic – diplomat extraordinaire

Nov 26, 2015 | Uncategorized


Question for Short Debate: December 10th 2015

Asked by Baroness Berridge⁠

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they plan to take to tackle the rise in religiously-identified conflicts and violence, in the light of the recent visit by Pope Francis to the Central African Republic.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB):⁠

My Lords, I, too, welcome this debate and I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving us the opportunity to discuss the suffering being experienced in the Central African Republic, one of the five poorest countries in Africa and a country of which she has first-hand knowledge. Undoubtedly, Pope Francis has shone a light into one of the darkest corners of the world, explaining that the purpose of his visit to that maimed and disfigured country was to bring its mutilated people “consolation and hope.”


Since 2013, CAR has been the scene of chronic violence and unending upheaval, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, has reminded us.


Although religious leaders in CAR have insisted that the conflict is ethnic and political, the fighting has divided the country on religious lines, with mostly Muslim rebel forces fighting mainly Christian militias.


In the context of intensified violence this autumn, perhaps the Minister can give his own assessment of the effectiveness of the UN peacekeeping force, to which reference has been made, and how its work can be made more effective.


Given CAR’s divisions, how fitting it was that the Pontiff went to both the cathedral and the mosque in Bangui and urged both sides to put down the weapons of war and to work for justice.

pope francis in Bangui

At the cathedral, he symbolically opened the first door of mercy in what he has proclaimed this week to be a year of mercy.


Without this combination of justice and mercy, we will see no progress in the fiefdoms dominated by war lords and their militias.


During his visit, Pope Francis trenchantly admonished those who “seek revenge” and warned of “the spiral of endless retaliation”.


In April 2014, the interreligious platform of Catholics, Evangelicals and Muslims committed itself to promote co-existence and mutual respect in CAR. Its leaders were presented with a basket of eggs, symbolising the fragility of the peace process.


Welcome local initiatives and a project giving women the opportunity to take part in conflict resolution have subsequently been initiated.


Social cohesion, dialogue and mediation will be key if ever CAR is to move beyond conflict. Without it, there can be no stability, no development and no prosperity. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what more we can do to support conflict resolution.


Given the importance of harnessing religious communities, recognised at the 2014 Wilton Park conference on religion, foreign policy and development, I hope that the Minister can tell us what programmes the Government are supporting which engage with faith communities—but not just as a functional network of delivery agents for social projects— and how DfID will harness the faith communities in places like CAR.


Will the Government closely examine what the Civil Society Partnership Review has to say about faith communities?


The voices of faith leaders should be amplified at all levels by giving them platforms, communications and travel support, so that they can hold national leaders to account, remonstrate with and lead local communities and engage in international debates about their countries.


Returning specifically to CAR, those courageous few working in this dangerous field say that there are no recognisable government or state structures, and that at this critical juncture there is a need for long-term, predictable funding for at least three years to begin to find sustainable solutions to the crisis, including building state infrastructure, establishing essential services and addressing underlying vulnerabilities.


Restoring stability in CAR is not a nine-month programme.


We also need to do much more to stop the obscene flow of weapons from countries in the northern hemisphere into countries like CAR, where children are recruited and turned into killers. AK47s become the weapons of mass destruction.


When he replies, I hope the Minister will make reference to the provision of housing for returning refugees and meeting desperate humanitarian needs.


As the noble Lord, Lord McFall, has reminded us, Pope Francis has said that he sees the Church as “a field hospital after battle”. That metaphor could not have a more appropriate application than in the Central African Republic. He also said, when speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in September of this year, that “solemn commitments” which were not followed up on—often, sadly, a feature of United Nations initiatives—could ultimately do more harm than good.


What a tragedy it would be if his own initiative in pushing open a door in CAR were not now followed through with determination by the international community.


Pope Francis – diplomat extraordinaire

Pope Francis and St.Ignatius

Pope Francis,

diplomat extraordinaire


Article for Geopolitical Information Service: November 26th 2015




GIS editors’ note: This essay is in some respects

different from reports and cautious assessments

that we typically publish in our service. GIS expert

David Alton, Lord Alton of Liverpool, presents a

well-informed but also passionate account of how

Pope Francis and the Holy See’s globally networked

diplomacy have strived to inject more humanity,

more stability and more hope into today’s world.

For reading convenience, we have divided this

epic narrative into two consecutive parts, both

published here today. The author is a crossbench

member of the House of Lords. Previously he served

in the House of Commons. He is Professor of

Citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University.

He is also an author; his most recent book was about North Korea.


 Pope Francis 1



Whether navigating the Barque of Peter through the rough waters of international politics – or the even rougher waters of Church politics – Pope Francis is proving to be far more skilful and more adept than many of his detractors anticipated. In part, this is because he knows his own mind and refuses to be manipulated. If Francis has become a diplomat extraordinaire, confidently walking the world stage, and if we may be witnessing a golden age of Church diplomacy, it is also thanks to the shrewd appointments that he has made.


PART 1: World’s Listening Post


Instead of surrounding himself with courtiers, with their

incestuous and often self-serving connections, Francis

has made appointments on the basis of merit and ability.

Chief among his most important choices is his extraordinarily able and experienced secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.


cardinal paolin


Parolin has served in Africa, the Americas and Europe. In

Asia, he undertook delicate missions to Vietnam and

North Korea, leading to the formalising of diplomatic

relations with Vietnam, and in 2005 he re-established

direct contact with Beijing. The cardinal has been decisive

in pushing to the top of the Holy See’s agenda issues

such as the plight of the persecuted Christians of the

Middle East; one of the biggest migrations of refugees

since the Second World War; the proliferation of nuclear

weapons; the implications of the consumption of the world’s

finite resources and its effect on the world’s poor.


Those antagonists who have demanded that the Holy See

be removed from its non-member status at the United

Nations should consider for a moment what the

consequences would be if this distinctive voice was

side-lined or silenced.


Those secularists who are dismissive or sceptical about the role of Vatican statecraft have a poor grasp of history and little feel for a future where an understanding of religion is a prerequisite in understanding global forces.


Holy See


Since March 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has held office

as the 266th pope and as temporal head of the tiny Vatican

City State, established under the Lateran Pacts of 1929.

This state covers a mere 44 hectares and is home to just

800 people, but size is not the key to statehood or

sovereignty – think of Liechtenstein, Palau, or Tuvalu –

and, even less so, to importance.


On his election, Pope Francis foremost became the

spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.


On becoming Pontiff and Bishop of Rome he assumed

authority for the Holy See – which has its roots in apostolic

times. For diplomatic purposes, the Vatican acts and

speaks for the whole Church. It is a common error to view

the Holy See against the cut of the Renaissance costumes

of the Vatican’s Swiss Guards rather than against the

challenging issues that dominate the agendas of the

world’s great capitals. Think less Ruritania and more

Washington, Beijing, Moscow and London.


Today, the Holy See is one of the world’s most reliable

‘listening posts,’ with its worldwide presence of nuncios

and links to Catholic ecclesiastical and lay organisations it

has eyes and ears everywhere – also in dark and

dangerous places. All too often, where states have failed

and the international community has little presence, the

Church is there, getting help to where it is needed most.

Western governments frequently use Church institutions to

guarantee the transmission of aid or to verify intelligence.


The Holy See, on whose behalf Pope Francis and Cardinal

Parolin speak, has diplomatic relations with 178 states and

a history of diplomatic engagement that stretches back

1,600 years. It does not seek to impose its beliefs on

anyone but cherishes – as all of us who believe in free

speech should – its right to voice a distinctive and

important point of view. (Indeed, the alternative, of

remaining silent, when the barbarians come knocking at

the door, is a far more worrying prospect.)


Focus on the Neglected


The vitality and relevance of the Holy See’s voice has been

particularly evident over the past couple of months – with

visits by Pope Francis to Latin America, to Cuba, to the

United Nations and to the United States Congress. And as

these words are published, the pontiff is making his 11th

overseas visit – this time to Africa: to the unstable Central

African Republic (CAR), to Kenya and to Uganda. The

challenge of ‘learning to live together’ along with the

pressures of globalisation and poverty will be high on his


How could it be otherwise, in a country like CAR, a war

zone with an estimated per capita GDP of a paltry US$600,

or in Kenya, which has recently been rent by Islamist

terror groups? In April 2015, al-Shabaab Islamists stormed

Kenya’s Garissa University College, murdered 147 people

and injured 79 others; they took 700 hostages, freed

Muslims and killed those who identified themselves as



True to form, Pope Francis has asked the planners of his

future visit to the Caribbean that priority be given to those

islands which are the most impoverished and left on the

margins. No doubt Caribbean islands such as Dominica –

with 80 per cent of its population Catholic and hit by the

decline in banana production and significant poverty – will

be on that list.


Never forget that Francis is a Jesuit, inspired by the founder of the Society of Jesus, St.Ignatius of Loyola who said, ‘If our church is not marked by caring for the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, we are guilty of heresy.’

 pope francis and the poor

Always, when shaping his diplomatic priorities, Pope

Francis looks to those who are most likely to have been

forgotten. It is that consideration which has led to the

reshaping of the College of Cardinals – the ones who will

elect his successor – by faces and voices from the



A notable example of this was the appointment

of Burma’s formidable Archbishop of Rangoon, Charles

Bo, as Myanmar’s first cardinal, and cardinals from Haiti,

Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.


History Lessons


The clue to these appointments and priorities is to be

found in Francis’ spiritual DNA, in his calling to the Society

of Jesus, and in the events of the 79 years which his life



Born in 1936, in Argentina’s Buenos Aires, Francis

epitomises a break with a European-dominated papacy.

Coming from Latin America, where 40 per cent of the

world’s Catholics live, he has markedly different political

priorities from many of the curial cardinals. Having lived

through violence and dictatorship, he is acutely aware of

the criticism levelled at the Church when it has appeared

not to have been sufficiently outspoken.


A defining moment for popes, and the Holy See, was the

role it is perceived to have played during the rise of

National Socialism in Germany. In 1935, as Hitler’s

ambitions became increasingly apparent, Pierre Laval, the

French Foreign Minister, anxious to gain the support of

French Roman Catholics, made a doomed attempt to

persuade Joseph Stalin to stop persecuting Christians.

This was in the hope that a common front could be

assembled between French Communists and Catholics.


With famous derision, Stalin responded, ‘The pope! How

many divisions has he got?’ The emphatic answer would

come in 1989 in the role played by Karol Wojtyla – Pope

Saint John Paul II – in vanquishing Communist

totalitarianism in Eastern Europe.


Yet, in the 1930s, Stalin was looking at a powerless

papacy which appeared to have become imprisoned in the

Vatican and diminished in its ability to exert effective



At a distance of 70 or 80 years, subsequent generations

often damn the Church for its seemingly ineffectual

response to the rise of the Third Reich, anti-Semitism, the

industrial killing at Auschwitz and the other death camps.

Yet, it wasn’t through a failure to speak out.


Brave Stance


As early as 1928, the Vatican issued a ‘binding

condemnation’ of ‘that hate which is now called anti-

Semitism.’ In 1929 a German bishop, Johannes Gfollner of

Linz, warned against ‘the false prophets’ of Nazism and

told the Catholic faithful: ‘Close your ears and do not join

their associations, close your doors and do not let their

newspapers into your homes, close your hands and do not

support their endeavours in elections.’


In 1930, the Bishop of Mainz declared Nazism and

Catholicism to be irreconcilable; in 1933, the bishops of

Cologne, Upper Rhine and Paderborn said they would

deny the sacraments to anyone involved in parties hostile

to Christianity; and the bishops of Bavaria condemned

Nazi racism and the eugenic ideology with its scorn for the

sanctity of life of the unborn and support for euthanasia.


In 1937 Pope Pius XI condemned events in Germany

stating: ‘Seldom has there been a persecution so heavy,

so terrifying, so grievous and lamentable in its far-reaching

effects. It is a persecution that spares neither force, nor

oppression, nor threats, nor even subterfuge of intrigue

and the fabrication of false facts.’ In 1938 he said that no

Christian could be anti-Semitic because, ‘spiritually, we

are all Semites.’


But as the Church spoke out, the Vatican also started to

count the cost: Erich Klausner, the general secretary of

Germany’s Catholic Action, was shot dead; Adelbert Prost,

director of the Catholic Youth Sports Association, was

murdered; Fritz Gerlich, a Catholic journalist was murdered

at Dachau – known as ‘the priest’s camp’ because of the

2,670 priests from around 20 countries who were held

there. Six hundred Catholic priests died at Dachau and

another 325 died during the ‘transport of invalids.’ Catholic

politicians were arrested, Catholic political activity was

suppressed; Church property was confiscated and over

200 Catholic publications muffled. Albert Einstein, who

had escaped from Nazi Germany, said in 1940 that, ‘only

the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s

campaign for suppressing the truth … I am forced thus to

confess that what I once despised I now praise



Bishop von Galen – the Lion of Munster – displayed such

courage and bravery that one of the most influential Nazis,

Martin Bormann, demanded his execution. Von Galen

knew that the Church might not have armed divisions but

it had something else. He described the National Socialists

as ‘the hammer’ and the Church as ‘the anvil,’ concluding

that ‘the anvil is harder than the hammer.’


New Impulses


The Holocaust, the Second World War, the criticisms

levelled at Pius XII, and the subsequent Cold War

experiences have shaped 21st century Vatican diplomacy.

Now, Pope Francis has added his own southern

hemisphere experiences to the mix.

Those experiences and that metaphor of the hammer –

and certainly the sickle – may well have been in the mind

of Pope Francis when, in September, he visited Cuba and

met the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul.


Cuba’s enforced Marxist-Leninist Communism has led to

extraordinary suffering and appalling persecution of the

country’s Christians. Once Fidel Castro enshrined atheism

into the country’s constitution, religious believers were

incarcerated in forced labour camps and the Church was

subjected to violent persecution.


Although, today, there is not freedom of religion in Cuba,

there is the beginning of a new toleration and the anvil has

proved, once again, to be stronger than the hammer or the

sickle. For the first time in half a century, permission has

recently been given for the construction of a cathedral –

and Christmas and Good Friday restored as national

holidays. Churchgoers no longer face official



Sometimes Francis is wrongly portrayed as a Pope who is

unconnected with what has gone before.


In 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, Pope

Saint John XXIII was credited with providing a face-saving

proposal for Nikita Khrushchev. In visiting Cuba in 2015,

Francis was building on earlier visits by John Paul II and

Benedict XVI. Undoubtedly, though, he does have his own

special way of reaching hearts.


This combination of heart and head probably accounts for why a poll of Cubans found that 70 per cent of the surveyed Cubans had a favourable opinion of the Catholic Church and that 80 percent rated Pope Francis positively, seeing both the pope and the Church as powerful advocates for political and economic change.


PART 2: Game of patience and perseverance


In Cuba, as elsewhere, the pope and the Holy See have

been playing a game of patience and using their worldwide

networks to achieve incremental change. Their patient

view of history measures results in centuries and against

the experiences of two millennia.


Francis has a desire to put himself into the eye of the

storm and he has famously described the Church as ‘a

field hospital’ in the midst of the raging wars and violent

conflicts. This emphasis on finding healing for those

caught up in the world’s enduring conflicts is reflected in

Francis’ pastoral and liturgical priorities – with a Year of

Mercy to commence on December 8 and scheduled to

end in November 2016.

 pope francis field hospital

In the aftermath of the atrocities in Paris, there were calls

for the Year of Mercy to be cancelled, on the assumption

that participating pilgrims in Rome could be at risk. Francis

responded by saying that it was even more important for

the event to go ahead.


First Things First


Francis says: ‘The thing the Church needs most today is

the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the

faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a

field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously

injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the

level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds.

Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds,

heal the wounds. … And you have to start from the ground



But, in Cuba, and many other hostile theatres, beyond the

sincere desire for the Church to be a field hospital has

been the delicate footwork of Cardinal Parolin, using his

formidable skills and his divisions of diplomats in tolling for

diplomatic outcomes. In Cuba, these efforts have

undoubtedly led to the rapprochement of Cuba and the

United States. In the world of realpolitik these skilful secret

negotiations, plus the pope’s prestige, have enabled

President Barack Obama to see off some of the opposition

from the powerful and hostile expatriate Cuban community

in the US.


Inherent Risks


But engagement also carries risks. For one, it can be

caricatured as appeasement. As it walks its diplomatic

tightrope, the Holy See has to weigh the risks against the

alternative of keeping silent and doing nothing. Opponents

of engagement in Cuba, discounting incremental

improvements, have said that Francis should have been

more vehement in his criticism of Cuba’s one-party system

and more strident in seeking to expedite the opening up of

the country, and insistent on legalising political opposition.

To counter these criticisms, conscious of his own

experiences in Argentina, Francis has encouraged Cuba’s

Catholic Cardinal, Jaime Ortega, to negotiate directly with

the Cuban Government for the release of political



The unjust charge of silence in the face of Nazism does

have echoes in the unfair accusation that while he led the

Church in Argentina, Francis did not do enough to speak

out against the military junta in his own homeland. During

the 1976-1983 dictatorship in Argentina, up to 30,000

people were kidnapped, tortured and became

desaparecidos (‘the disappeared’).


Earlier this year, in Bolivia, Francis shined the spotlight on

South America’s bloody history when he prayed at the site

where, in 1980, the body of a fellow Jesuit priest, Father

Luís Espinal, was found after a death squad kidnapped,

tortured and killed him.


Balancing Act


But even in this context, there was a bear trap awaiting the

pontiff. Evo Morales, Bolivia’s Socialist President who

once described the Church as ‘the main enemy,

presented Francis with a crucifix mounted on a hammer

and sickle. The pope commented, ‘That’s not right,’ only to

be told that the crucifix was a replica of one which had

been made by Father Espinal. In applauding the social and

economic reforms of Mr Morales, Francis was seeking to

focus on those reforms which were in accordance with

Catholic Social Teaching rather than the tenets of Liberation



Balancing a desire for justice and mercy against dealing

directly with unsavoury regimes, and striking a balance

between free markets and command economies, between

unfettered capitalism and oppressive communism, is a

tightrope which John Paul II also walked. Only by taking

the risks associated with such funambulism can one effect



In June 1979, monumental events were triggered by John

Paul’s historic nine-day pilgrimage to Poland. Those nine

days literally changed the world – by igniting a revolution

of conscience and social solidarity. Nearly one third of

Poles took to the streets and, having been given fresh

hope and self-confidence, those millions of people

became the nucleus of Solidarity, the first officially

recognised free trade union in the communist world. The

Berlin Wall would collapse in 1989. Two years later, the

Soviet Union would be dissolved after a drama of

collapsing communist regimes had played out across

Eastern Europe. That’s the jury’s partial answer to the

question of how many divisions a pope has at his



Swallowed by the night


But the question has become more complicated than that,

not the least in Syria and the rest of the Middle East.

The destiny of that region’s Christian communities is

umbilically linked to the future of the countries in which

they live – and to the ideologies competing for power

against one another, and within Islam. The situation has

varied from country to country, but a tragic precedent has

been set. While in the heady days of the Arab Spring talk

revolved around good things – democracy, human rights,

accountability, equal citizenship, and an end to the culture

of impunity and repressive, corrupt forms of government –

now it is all about exodus and survival.

pope francis and persecuted christians


Iraq’s 1987 census reported 1.4 million Christians. Today,

there may be fewer than 250,000. A Christian from Kirkuk,

Iraq, quoted by the Asia News Agency, bitterly observed,

‘The attacks on Christians continue and the world remains

totally silent. It’s as if we have been swallowed up by the


 pope francis and persecuted chrsitians 2

Many of them fled to Syria where more than 200,000

people have been killed in the four and a half year long

civil war. Syria’s conflict is the worst humanitarian disaster

of our time, with more than 11 million people displaced

thus far, half of them children.

pope francis and refugees

Last month Francis urged Catholics in Europe to take

refugee families into their homes as he described his own

anguish, ‘I tell you that those terrible images from recent

days are burned into my mind and heart. There is the

judgement of God, and also the judgement of history,

upon our actions from which there is no escaping.’


Call to world leaders


It is two years since Pope Francis drew attention to the

plight of migrants fleeing the horrors of war and conflict,

when he said Mass for migrants on Italy’s tiny island of

Lampedusa and condemned the ‘global indifference’ to

their plight. The pope threw a wreath in the sea in memory

of the many people who have drowned trying to reach



Francis’ own ancestors emigrated to Argentina from Italy.

His origins give him great sympathy for impoverished

illegal migrants. Speaking on their behalf at the European

Parliament, in Strasbourg, in November 2014, he told the

legislators that they risked turning the Mediterranean into a

‘vast cemetery.’ That year, more than 3,000 people were

fished dead from the sea. Some 2,600 corpses have

already been reclaimed in 2015.


His same passion for the poor and those who ‘are cast off

by society’ was at the heart of his Sept. 25, 2015 address

to the United Nations General Assembly. He urged world

leaders to be good stewards of God’s creation and blamed

environmental degradation on a ‘selfish and boundless

thirst for power and material prosperity’ that causes untold

suffering for the poor.

He insisted that a concern for the environment must sit

alongside an ‘absolute respect for life in all its stages and

dimensions.’ His remarks were wide-ranging, urging action

on drug trafficking, armed conflict, terrorism, education,

inequality, religious freedom, and corruption. Francis has

also admonished the UN’s organisations for ‘ideological

colonisation’ when they attempt to force abortion and

population control measures – often conditional on

receiving development support and aid.


He told the General Assembly that ‘solemn commitments’

which were not followed up on – very often a feature of

United Nations initiatives – could ultimately do more harm

than good. That is certainly not a charge which can be laid

at Francis’ door. He came to the General Assembly having

addressed the American Congress – a third of whose

members are Catholic – and having spoken at the White



Above partisanship


Left and right, Democrat and Republican, were united in

their praise of the pope but they stood no chance to claim

him for their partisan positions. He electrified Congress as

he urged lawmakers to transcend their divisions,

rediscover their ideals, and tackle climate change,

immigration, poverty, while affirming the right to life of the

unborn child and the place of the family. He attacked the

use of capital punishment, which remains legal in 31 US

states, with 3,002 inmates on death row in the US – 746 in

California alone. Francis also passionately attacked the

global arms trade which he said is ‘drenched in blood.’


Underlining that his actions must always match his words,

Francis left Congress to meet the poor and homeless who

live in a parallel world in the shadows of Capitol Hill.

Having raised the question of religious conscience with

President Barack Obama – one which will be decided

upon by America’s Supreme Court – he also made an

unscheduled visit to the city’s Little Sisters of the Poor.


They are caught up in a legal battle with the White House

because of the insistence of the Obama administration

that their hospitals must provide abortion-inducing drugs.

As a matter of conscience, they insist that they cannot be

required to end the life of an unborn child.


In tackling these controversial questions and in taking his

beliefs into the great assemblies, and onto the world’s

streets, Pope Francis has reminded millions of people

what the Church stands for. He has marshalled his

divisions and his battalions, and inspired his foot soldiers.

Whether in democracies or in countries blighted by

oppression, he will have encouraged many to make his

priorities their priorities.


Ignatius of Loyola told his Jesuits to ‘Go forth and set the

world on fire.’

Pope Francis and St.Ignatius



With the skilful help of Pietro, Cardinal Parolin, this first Jesuit pope, and diplomat extraordinaire, seems to have taken Ignatius at his word.



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