Bush takes a tongue-lashing from the Pope over Iraq
John Hooper in Rome and John Aglionby in Singapore
Saturday June 5, 2004
The Pope yesterday subjected George Bush to a very public, relentlessly critical assessment of the US administration’s performance in Iraq, attacking "deplorable" abuses of prisoners and calling for an international solution to the country’s crisis.
During the president’s visit to the Vatican, which the administration had hoped would help him win Catholic votes in November’s presidential election, the Pope warned Mr Bush he would never succeed in the war on terrorism if he failed to ensure respect for basic human rights.
And he urged him to involve the United Nations in an oper ation for the swift return of sovereignty to Iraq.
In a clear reference to the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib jail, the pontiff said: "In the past few weeks _ deplorable events have come to light which have troubled the civic and religious conscience of all and made more difficult a serene and resolute commitment to shared human values.
"In the absence of such a commitment, neither war nor terrorism will ever be overcome."
Mr Bush had changed the itinerary of his European tour to accommodate yesterday’s meeting with the Pope – his first since ordering the invasion of Iraq. Though the war earned him sharp criticism from the Vatican, the president is closer than his Democ rat rival John Kerry to the Pope’s stance on issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
After a string of ground-clearing exercises culminating in a visit to the Vatican by Vice-President Dick Cheney in January, it had been expected the Pope would tone down his remarks on Iraq, particularly since he was to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US award available to a civilian.
But targeting Washington’s reluctance to hand over full powers to the Iraq government and its misgivings over UN involvement, the pontiff said: "It is the evident desire of everyone that this situation now be normalised as quickly as possible with the active participation of the international community and, in particular, the United Nations organisation, in order to ensure a speedy return of Iraq’s sovereignty."
Mr Bush said his government would work for "human liberty and human dignity", but made no direct mention of Iraq.
The only, thin pickings to be gleaned from his visit came when the Pope expressed appreciation for the president’s "commitment to the promotion of moral values in American society, particularly with regard to respect for life and the family".
Mr Bush sped to the Vatican in a 30-vehicle convoy across a Rome eerily deserted for fear of clashes between police and anti-war demonstrators.
An anti-war march passed off peacefully with one organiser, Piero Bernocchi, estimating the crowd at 150,000. But police put the numbers at around 25,000.
Kidnappers holding three Italians in Iraq had called for a big demonstration against Mr Bush. But the hostages’ relatives withdrew from the march rather than be seen to be capitulating to the terrorists’ demands.
Mr Bush had come to Rome to mark the 60th anniversary of the allied liberation of the city before flying on to D-day commemorations in France.
The Pope’s fears over the war on terror were echoed by one of America’s staunchest Asian allies, Singapore’s prime minister, Goh Chok Tong. He told a summit of defence ministers, including the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, that America’s lack of an even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue had made it "part of the problem".
"A more balanced and nuanced approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – an approach _that there are equities and inequities on both sides – must become a central pillar of the global war against terrorism," he said.
"The discomfort that mainstream Muslims feel with America’s Middle East policies limits their ability to fight the ideological battle."