Friday, June 29, 2007

Pope appoints diplomats to key roles in Vatican after policy slip-ups

After a season of apparent policy slip-ups, Pope Benedict XVI is shuffling top advisers and bringing in veteran diplomats closely identified with Vatican policy in Iraq and the Middle East.

On Monday, Benedict restored an office that specializes in relations with Muslims, a year after he was criticized for disbanding it.

He appointed French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican's foreign affairs chief from 1990 to 2003, as president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, raising the office's profile. Tauran was one of the strongest Vatican opponents of U.S. plans to invade Iraq, saying a unilateral military strike would be a “crime against peace” with no justification on grounds of self-defense.

Two weeks ago, the pope named Archbishop Fernando Filoni, an Italian prelate who served as Vatican envoy in Iraq from 2001-2006, to the key post of undersecretary of state.

Church relations with Muslims were badly strained after a speech by Benedict in September that linked Islam to violence. Benedict later said he regretted that Muslims were offended by his remarks.

That was not the only brushfire that had to be stamped out.

Benedict's support for a Polish archbishop who turned out to have been an informer for the dreaded communist secret service was also an embarrassment.

Even Benedict's first news conference caused confusion, and resulted in the Vatican rewriting some of his remarks.

When Benedict was elected, some questioned his pastoral preparation after two decades in a Vatican office. Few had doubts about his intellectual acumen, theological precision and foreign language skills, but he had no diplomatic experience.

Though Benedict continues to draw thousands to his public appearances two years into his papacy, he has made some apparent mistakes on policy issues that he or Vatican officials have had to fix.

“What you are seeing is tension almost from the beginning” of the Benedict papacy, John-Peter Pham, a former Vatican diplomat, told The Associated Press.

He pointed out that while Benedict is a theologian, the Secretariat of State was concerned with “realpolitik considerations.”

Benedict backed off from his remarks on Islam and violence, first expressing regret for offending Muslims, then adding a footnote to his original speech – the version now in the Vatican archives for posterity. It made clear that he was quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor and was not expressing “my personal view of the Quran,” the Muslim holy book.

Benedict has lately become more outspoken about the Middle East, decrying during a recent visit to Assisi “the illusion” that force could resolve conflicts.

The pope has repeatedly denounced the killings and kidnappings of priests and other Christians in the Middle East, as well as policies that have forced thousands of members of communities that date to the early years of Christianity to flee.

Under John Paul, Tauran was a strong voice demanding “international guarantees” to protect Christian, Muslim and Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem.

The Israelis and Palestinians, however, rejected the demand.

On other topics, Indian rights groups in Brazil criticized Benedict for his insistence during his trip that Latin American Indians wanted to become Christian before European conquerors arrived centuries ago.

Upon returning to Rome, Benedict said the church does not gloss over the injustices that accompanied the Christian colonization of Latin America and lamented that indigenous peoples' basic rights were often trampled upon by missionaries.

Early in his papacy, he came under fire for not listing Israel among countries that were victims of terrorism, then made up for it in a subsequent speech.

Benedict's predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II, honed his political skills as a priest in communist Poland.


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