All about upcoming visits of Pope Francis


Hugh Fitzgerald

Pope Francis has announced plans to soon visit – though no dates were given – Lebanon and South Sudan – but without explaining why these two countries are being singled out. He has already scheduled a visit to Iraq at the beginning of March. The report on his plans is here: “Pope promises to visit Lebanon, South Sudan, as soon as possible,” Reuters, December 24, 2020:

Pope Francis promised in his Christmas messages on Thursday to visit Lebanon and South Sudan as soon as he could.

The pope traditionally mentions countries in his Christmas Day message, but he singled out those two nations with Christmas Eve messages because of difficulties each has faced this year.

“I am deeply troubled to see the suffering and anguish that has sapped the native resilience and resourcefulness of the Land of the Cedars,” Francis said, referring to Lebanon, which has been struggling with a deep economic crisis and the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion on Aug. 4 that killed about 200 people….

Francis expressed “my affection for the beloved people of Lebanon, whom I hope to visit as soon as possible.

Which “beloved people of Lebanon” are those? Surely Pope Francis does not mean to include the members of the terror group Hezbollah, who dig tunnels into Israel in the hope of kidnapping or killing Israelis? Not those Hezbollah members who have violently suppressed those Lebanese who have been protesting non-violently against the mismanagement and corruption of the government — the one that is dominated by Hezbollah and its willing collaborators, including the Maronite President Michel Aoun? Surely the Pope cannot be planning to meet with representatives of Hezbollah, the terror group that hides its weapons, including 150,000 missiles and rockets, inside mosques, schools, shops, apartment buildings, unavoidably making these places, in the event of another war with Israel that Hezbollah may initiate, into targets? The Pope certainly won’t want to meet with members of Hezbollah, which continually threatens to again drag Lebanon into a war with Israel that no other Lebanese, want. He surely won’t even entertain the notion of meeting with Hezbollah, which was responsible for the August 4 blast in Beirut that left 200 dead, 6,000 wounded, 300,000 homeless, and $15 billion in damage. Or am I underestimating the capacity of Pope Francis for self-delusioni?

He said he hoped the country could “stand apart from conflicts and regional tensions.”

How is that possible, when Iran, through its proxy Hezbollah, has dragged an unwilling Lebanon into being used as a base against Israel? As long as Hezbollah controls Lebanon, that country will be forced to be a participant in the Arab-Israel conflict. Despite what most Lebanese ardently desire, Hezbollah prevents the country from “standing apart from conflicts and regional tensions.”

In Lebanon, Pope Francis should dare to take on Hezbollah both when he appears, and when he doesn’t. First, he should refuse any meeting with representatives of the terror group, for such a meeting can only help legitimize it. Within the last two years major European states, such as the U.K., Germany, and the Netherlands, have designated both the “political” and “military” wings of Hezbollah to be parts of a single entity, and banned that entity as a “terrorist” group. This is not the time for the Pope to be seen meeting with the group, especially now that it is on the ropes. He should wish publicly for the “land of the Cedars” not to be “dragged into quarrels by foreign states manipulating local proxies.” His meaning, not naming but clearly alluding to Iran and Hezbollah, will be crystal clear. He should decry “the use of Lebanon as a storehouse for vast amounts of weapons hidden in civilian areas, that will be the target of attack in any likely future war.” He should stress that “those responsible for the August 4 blast must be held to answer for their “haphazard storing of dangerous chemicals” at the Port of Beirut. He should meet only briefly, with President Michel Aoun, as a way of expressing his displeasure with Aoun’s support for Hezbollah, and spend a much longer time with two key anti-Hezbollah figures, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, who has repeatedly expressed his frustration with, and anger at, Hezbollah, and with Sa’ad Hariri, the Sunni Prime Minister who opposes Hezbollah, not least because the terror group murdered his father Rafik Hariri in 2005.

By visiting with Hezbollah’s best-known opponents, and leaving little time for a meeting with Hezbollah’s collaborator President Aoun, and no time at all for a meeting with representatives of Hezbollah itself — Hassan Nasrallah can’t see him in any case, for he is apparently hiding out from the Israelis in Iran — the Pope will have reinforced his anti-Hezbollah message. No one will be mistaken as to where he stands on the matter: he wants Hezbollah to surrender its major weaponry to the government, so that the Lebanese National Army will again be the strongest military force in the country. He wants Hezbollah to lose its prominent representation in the government — both in the Cabinet and in the Parliament, as well as its control over non-Shi’a collaborators, like the ever-accommodating President Aoun, quislings who deserve to be replaced by Lebanese patriots of every sect. The Pope’s own firmness will encourage the formation of an anti-Hezbollah political coalition that will run candidates in the next election. Finally, the Pope surely wants Hezbollah to be pressured by the public to admit that it was responsible for the August 4 Beirut blast and to be made to suffer both political consequences, with a loss of representation in the cabinet and Parliament, and economic consequences, the result of lawsuits by those who lost relatives, or who were themselves wounded, or lost property, in the blast. Hezbollah could be bankrupted. This, of course, is a comforting fantasy — what the Pope “could do” if he were only to allow the scales to fall from his eyes, He [the Pope] is already due to visit Iraq March 5-8.

In Iraq surely the Pope should have something to say about the catastrophic decline in that country’s Christian population. In 2003, at the start of the American war against Saddam Hussein, there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq; now there are only 250,000. The Pope should publicly deplore this state of affairs, should say aloud that the “people of Iraq should ask themselves why this has happened” and whether there is any way to assure Christians of their safety and to “bring back to Iraq members of one of the oldest Christian populations in the world.”

In a separate message written jointly with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who is the spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican communion, and Church of Scotland moderator Martin Fair, the three church leaders committed to making a previously delayed trip to majority Christian South Sudan “as things return to normalcy.”

The message was addressed to South Sudan’s leaders, former rivals who formed a national unity government in February after years of civil war ravaged the oil-producing yet poor nation.

A U.N. report said this month that implementing various aspects of a peace accord had stalled in the country, where floods in September displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

South Sudan has successfully thrown off the yoke of the Muslim Arabs living in the northern Sudan, who for years oppressed black African Christians and pagans in the south of what was then a single country, even enslaving many of them. But that long struggle was costly: the South Sudan won its war for independence in 2011, but it also emerged impoverished after so many years of fighting; millions of the black Africans in the South Sudan were displaced by that war against the northern Arabs. The South Sudan now has other miseries to contend with: a low-level civil war within the country, pitting Dinka against Nuer tribesmen, as well as a drought earlier this year which has been followed by catastrophic flooding, both of which have contributed to widespread famine.

Perhaps the Pope can allude to the historical background to the present misery, the decades of oppression of southern black African Christians by northern Muslim Arabs. He could say something about “how in the past, when Sudan was a single country, government resources were not spent on flood control, or on ways to deal with drought. The government spent hundreds of millions of dollars on making war on the Christians, while those Christians in the south spent what little they had on defending themselves, and then a war for their independence, which they finally obtained in 2011. They now live in their own state, where they are no longer persecuted for following their faith, but are still paying for the misallocation of resources by others, who spent money not on flood control or drought mitigation, but on war-making. We came to the South Sudan to express our sympathy, and to urge the world to help these people who have suffered both in times of war and times of a most incomplete peace.

That’s what I’d like to hear the Pope say in Lebanon, about Hezbollah’s disastrous presence in the country, and in Iraq about the disappearing Christians of the Middle East, and what he could say in the South Sudan, about the long-term effects of the oppression and war inflicted by Muslim Arabs on Christian Africans. Wishful thinking, I suppose, to expect any of that from the man who has heaped praise on the antisemitic Grand Sheikh Al-Tayyeb of al-Azhar University and joined him in signing, to great acclaim, a ballyhooed Document on Human Fraternity. We cannot forgive such dangerous naivete, nor Francis’ fatuous remark that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Quran are opposed to every form of violence.” But let’s keep hoping that at some point, even in the mind and heart of Pope Francis, reality will manage to break in.


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