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Pope Benedict XVI: A Voice Crying in the Wilderness on Nonviolence in the Middle East: We Will Not Be Quiet

During the recent war in Lebanon, Pope Benedict XVI cried out at every public appearance for all, in the name of God, to immediately lay down their arms. He said, “We will not keep quiet, we will do everything possible so that those in power hear us.” The Vatican Information Service has faithfully reported his statements.

The shock, the scandal, has been that very little attention has been paid to Benedict’s pleas for peace. The response in the United States to the Holy Father’s pleas for prayer, penance, and peace has been muted, even silent for so many Catholics. While in Rome and among Christians in the Holy Land, leaders have echoed his voice, in our country his voice has been drowned out by those who seem to support violence in whatever form against civilians in a whole nation. In this conflict not only Muslims (all dismissed as terrorists) but entire Christian communities were bombed.

Condemning the conflict, saying there could be no justification for the terrorist acts nor the reprisals, particularly when there are tragic consequences for civilians, the Holy Father reminded us that the hope for peace and reconciliation is not in violence, but in the testimony of God’s victory through nonviolence. Violence must be answered with a love like that of Christ, that reaches unto death. This is God’s humble way of winning, he said, not with a stronger empire, but with love that endures to the very end.

The Pope insisted on the right of peoples to coexist: “the right of the Lebanese to the integrity and sovereignty of their country, of the Israelis to live in peace in their State, and of the Palestinians to have their own free and sovereign homeland.”

The Holy Father expressed his particular closeness to the “defenseless civilian population, unjustly involved in a conflict of which they are only the victims, both those in Galilee who are forced to live in shelters, and the great multitudes of Lebanese who, once again, are seeing their country destroyed and have been forced to abandon everything to seek refuge elsewhere.” “I would like to repeat that nothing can justify the shedding of innocent blood, no matter from which side it comes,” the Pope said (Audience for Altar Servers 8/2/06).

Asia News reported that the Maronite Catholic Bishops of Lebanon condemned the bombing of civilians and the massacre of children. They spoke of the agony of the Lebanese people.

Asia News also reported on the joint appeal expressed by the leaders of 17 Lebanese religious communities, Christian and Muslim,. The religious leaders called for a ceasefire and an end of military reprisals on both sides. They called on those responsible for the “useless and unjustified war” to exchange kidnapped troops and to open humanitarian corridors so aid could reach displaced people.

Asia News reported the message of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michael Sabbah, who condemned the capture of Israeli soldiers in Gaza and in southern Lebanon, but “at the same time condemned” the capture of Palestinians by Israel: “For years, 10,000 Palestinian prisoners have been in Israeli prisons. These too have parents and beloved ones waiting for their return. Indeed every human person has an equal human dignity, whether Palestinian or Israeli.”

Displaced Lebanese and Immigrant Workers—Stranded or killed in Lebanon

While many Israelis had to take refuge in bomb shelters to avoid the missiles of Hezbollah and some Israeli civilians have been killed, news reports indicate that almost a thousand Lebanese civilians were killed and a million uprooted from their homes by the incessant bombing—one fourth of the population. The Holy Father spoke of “hundreds of dead, many injured, a vast mass of homeless and displaced people, cities and infrastructures destroyed, while hatred and thirst for revenge seem to be growing in the hearts of many.”

Not only Lebanese were uprooted. Farm workers from Syria were killed as they worked. Zenit and Catholic Online and Filipino web sites reported that 100,000 undocu-mented workers from many countries (e.g., Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Philippines, India, and Bangladesh) were stranded, left without work and no way home. They have been assisted to return home to their countries by the Caritas Migrant Center in Beirut, but it has been very difficult because of the bombing of all of the roads and bridges, the risk of being bombed on the road—and the risk of arrest for being undocumented as they tried to leave the country. The price of transportation rose to 10 times the usual cost.

Catholic aid agencies affiliated with Caritas International assisted tens of thousands of displaced Lebanese during the bombing, providing shelter and basic food and water.

How to Respond

It must be difficult for the Israelis when their very exis-ence seems to be threatened. They must be tempted to react disproportionately as they have done or even to use the nuclear weapons that they have. Unfortunately, it appears that they are fighting the United States’ war. Amazingly, reports show that the U.S. supports Israel at a cost of $15 million a day. We have continued to ship armaments and bombs to Israel during this conflict.

Newspapers and TV commen-tators in the United States have claimed that Hezbollah and Hamas were solely responsible for starting the war by capturing three Israeli soldiers.

News sources have failed to point out is that the day before the first Israeli soldier was captured, two Palestinian civilians were kidnapped by Israel forces. There has been no outcry about the kidnapping of these civilians, certainly a worse crime than capturing a soldier, or over the civilians previously kidnapped or killed by Israeli forces. Both Hamas and Hezbollah have attempted in the past to capture one or two Israelis in order to free some of their prisoners through exchange. They apparently had given up hope that Israel will otherwise release the prisoners who have been held for long periods of time under difficult conditions, some very young.

As we go to press it is being reported that Israel has kidnapped a democratically elected Hamas government minister. As Pope Benedict has pointed out, with an escalation of violence by one side and then the other, there will be no peace.

Catholic News Service reported that the Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, Obed Ben-Hur, challenged the Vatican’s criticism of Israel’s disproportionate response to the capture of two soldiers. He asked, “What is the right proportion? 10 to five? One to one? One hundred to 1,000? There is no such thing, he said.” We had understood that the Hebrew Scriptures introduced a novel teaching on war which limited such responses to an eye for an eye. In this crisis, to return to even that criterion would have been a vast improvement.

United Vatican Consistent

Pope John Paul II and Benedict were joined in their opposition to war in general and specifically to those in the Middle East. In 2006 prelates like Cardinal Sodano, Cardinal Eduardo Martinez, Archbishop Lajolo and others gave a united response in the condemnation of war as a solution. Catholic News, a service of Church Resources on the Internet, reported that Cardinal Bertone, the incoming Secretary of State of the Vatican, condemned the ”useless massacres” in Lebanon and has described Vatican warnings on Iraq as “prophetic.” To those who say the way of nonviolence is unrealistic, the Vatican answers, war is unrealistic; our hope of reconciliation is in dialogue and love. Reminding us that Jesus’ reconciliation and sacrifice are not in vain, our Holy Father is asking all of us to act with sacrificial love and prayer for one another and for peace.

The words of the Holy Father affirm again Dorothy Day’s position on war and peace. At a time when the fear of terrorism grips many and the temptation is to respond with great repression and violence, Dorothy’s words from February 1942 are still timely:

“Perhaps we are called sentimental because we speak of love. We say we love our president, our country. We say that we love our enemies, too. ‘Hell,’ Bernanos said, ‘is not to love any more.’

“Greater love hath no man than this,” Christ said, “that he should lay down his life for his friend.”

“Love is the measure by which we shall be judged,” St. John of the Cross said. .

“Love is an exchange of gifts,” St. Ignatius said.

Love is a breaking of the bread….

Love is not the starving of whole populations. Love is not the bombardment of open cities. Love is not killing, it is the laying down of one’s life for one’s friend.


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVI, No. 6, September-October 2006.