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