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Vatican diplomacy gets bogged down in Gaza and Ukraine

The Holy See harshens the tone of its criticism of Israel and bolsters contacts in Kyiv in the face of stalemate in both conflicts it seeks to mediate

Pope Francis presides over the First Vespers and Te Deum,
Pope Francis on Februrary 16 in St. Peter’s Basilica.Andrew Medichini (AP)
Daniel Verdú

For weeks, Pope Francis has been calling the Christian parish in Gaza every afternoon. The Pontiff connects by videoconference, and about 600 people listen in to receive his encouragement and support. It is one of the only things he can do right now, given how complex the situation there has become. Times are complicated, in a different way, for the Holy See, who has been unable to use its influence towards a longed-for ceasefire. Last week, tensions between Israel and the Vatican ratcheted up another notch. The Vatican’s Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, declared that Israel’s right to self-defense does not justify the “carnage” of “30,000 deaths”. The next day, the Israeli embassy in Italy issued a statement calling the words of the Vatican’s second-in-command “deplorable”. But the Holy See did not retract Parolin’s comments, and L’Osservatore Romano, the Pope’s official newspaper, once again referred to the conflict using the same terms to make clear that his was not a personal opinion, but a reflection of the pontificate’s position on the conflict.

Problems continue to snowball in both Gaza and another region at war, Ukraine. The Vatican has watched the situations worsen and death tallies rise with a sense of impotency. Its legendary diplomacy, which gave rise to its reputation as a mediator in time of war and political conflicts, has encountered two scenarios in which it has few resources to influence. The war in Ukraine comes at a time when its relations with Moscow are at a low point, and the massacre in Gaza, at a time when its relations with Israel are also suffering.

The Pope decided to entrust the Ukraine mission to the cardinal and president of the Italian Episcopal Conference, Matteo Zuppi. The cardinal is an expert negotiator: he mediated the resolution of the conflicts in Mozambique in 1992, the Burundi ceasefire of 2003 in collaboration with Nelson Mandela, and in Guatemala during the mid-1990s. “Every war ends with a negotiation,” he said in a recent interview. Nearly eight months later, he has held meetings in Ukraine, Russia, China and the United States. Soon, he will travel to France to meet with President Emmanuel Macron. But his results, for the moment, have been limited to being able to keep all channels open, and to valuable humanitarian work, a far cry from peace in the region.

Other tactics

Massimo Faggioli, Catholic Church historian and professor of theology at Philadelphia’s Villanova University, offers an analysis of what’s at play in this situation. “The wars in Ukraine and Gaza have incorporated more voices into the Vatican secretary of state’s diplomacy, even if that has taken place in parallel to Cardinal Zuppi’s mission. On the other hand, it is clearly a very difficult time for all diplomacy, beginning with the United States. The Vatican, however, has other channels, such as local churches and their representatives, that other governmental organizations do not.”

Stefano Capiro, a priest who is an expert on international conflicts and Russia, where he lived for long periods of time, thinks that it is necessary to differentiate between the two wars when it comes to the attention they are receiving from the Vatican. “Diplomacy in the war in Ukraine is not managed directly by the secretary of state. It is done more informally, through Cardinal Zuppi. And there has been no great progress there. It is true that some children who were deported [to Russia] have been returned, but little else. As soon as the armed conflict subsides, an attempt will be made to seek meetings with ecclesiastical jurisdictions,” he points out. The Vatican’s relationship with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has not helped much. “But the foreign representative of the Russian Orthodox Church is in permanent contact with the Catholics, both in Moscow and here at the Vatican, where he usually comes. That relationship exists. But at the moment, it is not giving results because there is no clear strategy,” Capiro says.

As for Israel, there is lots of work to be done, but its situation is more tense, according to Capiro. The Pope insists that the Oslo accords be honored and that a two-state solution be pursued. He last made such comments in a lengthy interview with the Turin newspaper La Stampa. When it comes to the conflict in Gaza, which has deeply impacted the Christian community of Palestine, Francis has full confidence in Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Parolin’s comments from last week indicate a certain level of exasperation coming from the Holy See over the lack of progress in Gaza. The Vatican has witnessed outcry from various counties against Israel and Parolin has turned up the volume on its own dissent. “He has indicated that Israel is the party that is able to stop the conflict. He has gone beyond prudence in terms of Vatican diplomacy, that is true. But this has also happened because in the last few days, there have been clear positions taken by important countries like the United States, Italy, and France, plus Spain and Ireland, who have done so since the beginning,” say diplomatic sources.

The Vatican is looking for creative ways to better the situation for the inhabitants of Ukraine and Gaza. For the next World Children’s Day, which will be celebrated in Rome in May, 30 boys and girls from Palestine will travel to the Italian capital. Details of the event have yet to be defined, but sources from the Holy See hope that it could mean new hope for humanitarian negotiations.

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