Wednesday, April 9, 2003

From the Vatican today:

A senior US official suggested after talks with Vatican officials Wednesday that Washington had mended its rift with the Holy See over waging a war on Iraq which Pope John Paul II has firmly opposed."They recognise the decision on the war has been made by the president and they respected the conscience with which he took that decision," said John Bolton, US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.

Bolton is the highest ranking official of US President George W. Bush's administration to meet with Vatican officials since the outbreak of the US-led conflict on March 20. "There wasn't any criticism about the conduct of the war," Bolton told reporters after talks with senior Vatican officials including Foreign Minister Jean-Louis Tauran."I think all of the representatives said that obviously that the decision on the use of hostilities is the decision the civil authority has to make and that decison is on the conscience of those who have to make it.""Their interest now is for the future, to ensure that we do not have a humanitarian tragedy in Iraq which has been one of the aims of our planners from the outset," he said.

In a short statement, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the US official had reiterated Washington's commitment "to respect the ius bello" or law of war, and ensure its forces spared civilian casualties.The Vatican had suggested "concrete ways" in which Muslim and Christian religious networks could be used to channel humanitarian aid in the country, given the destruction of ruling Baath Party networks by which the UN oil-for-food aid packages were distributed."The elimination of the Baath Party as a political force may mean the food distribution system comes apart as well," said Bolton. The Vatican, Bolton told a news conference at the US embassy to the Holy See, had been concerned "that we provide adequately for the reconstruction of Iraq."

The pope, who on Wednesday deplored the "death and destruction" wrought by the war, as well as fresh conflict in Africa, had been at the centre of intense diplomatic efforts to avoid the war, and was reported by aides to have been "deeply saddened and disappointed" upon its outbreak.Wednesday at St Peter's Square, he addressed a "sorrowful appeal to the political authorities, as to all men of good will, to commit themselves to cease violence and injustice..."

In the tense weeks prior to its conflict, the 82-year-old pontiff held talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Iraq's Deputy Foreign Minister Tareq Aziz at the Vatican, and sent separate envoys to Baghdad and to Washington.One newspaper said the pope had become irate with Blair at one stage of their encounter.

Bolton had separate talks with Tauran, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, head of the Italian Bishop's Conference, and US Cardinal James Stafford, each lasting about an hour. They were a "continuation" of the discussion Bush had with the pope's envoy to Washington in March, Cardinal Pio Laghi.Though he brushed aside suggestions of a rift between the Vatican and Washington over Iraq, Wednesday's discussions had an air of fence-mending about them.

Italian newspapers have reported that US ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson, had been working to mend fences with the Vatican.Indeed, Nicholson told reporters that Wednesday's meeting had been held "at our behest."Vatican officials, led by the pope himself, have in public statements attached great importance on the suffering of the civilian population and the need to avoid civilian casualties in Iraq.Bolton said he had pointed out the importance placed by "all the coalition forces" on avoiding civilian casualties. They were doing "everything humanly possible to avoid" such casualties, "and there wasn't any of criticism of the conduct of the war" by the Vatican officials.