17 May 2015

The political Pope: does the Vatican have diplomatic clout?

Pope Francis names two Palestinian women as saints just days after the Vatican formalised its de facto recognition of the Palestine state. Channel 4 News takes a look at his other political battles.

The canonisation of Sister Marie-Alphonsine Danil Ghattas, founder of the Sisters of the Most Holy Rosary of Jerusalem, and Maryam Baouardy, who founded a Carmelite convent in Bethlehem, was not directly connected with the Vatican’s Wednesday announcement of a new accord with the State of Palestine.

But the ceremony, attended by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and a delegation of senior clergy including the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, highlighted Pope Francis’ drive to help embattled Christian communities in the Middle East.

Palestinian question

Abbas, whom the pope called “an angel of peace” when the two met on Saturday, said in a statement the example of the two newly canonised saints “affirms our determination to build a sovereign, independent and free Palestine based on the principles of equal citizenship”.

He called on Palestinian Christians not to emigrate “but to stay with us and enjoy the rights of full and equal citizenship, and bear with us the difficulties of life until we achieve liberty, sovereignty and human dignity.”

Read more: Catholics have a new leader - but who is Pope Francis?

The move, however, has angered US Republican critics, arguing that the Vatican has gradually become more politicised.

Republican congressman Jeff Duncan, a member of the Israel Allies Foundation, said: “It’s interesting how the Vatican has gotten so political when ultimately the Vatican ought to be working to lead people to Jesus Christ and salvation, and that’s what the Church is supposed to do.

“Now the Pope is legitimising a Palestinian state without requiring those who get recognition to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.”

An Israeli foreign ministry official described the Vatican’s move as a “disappointment” and indicated that it may lead to reprisals, although he did not say of what kind.

“This does not promote the peace process and a Palestinian return to negotiations,” the official said. “Israel will study the agreement and consider its next steps accordingly.”

The Vatican is thought to have become increasingly proactive in foreign policy under Pope Francis, with the leader of the Catholic world even set to deliver a speech to a joint session of congress this autumn.

Armenian massacre

He was also criticised for his stance on the mass killings of Armenians during the First World War, describing the atrocity as “genocide”, although Turkish authorities have always denied that the deaths of 1.5 million people amounted to a systematic extermination.

Read more: Armenia - what do the Pope and Kim Kardashian have in common?

The Vatican’s ambassador in Ankara was summoned in April by Turkish officials after the Pope said during a mass marking the centenary of the slaughter, that it is “widely considered ‘the first genocide of the 20th century'”.

Turkey said that they were “deeply sorry and disappointed” by the Pope’s comments adding that it had caused a “problem of trust”.

Read Alex Thomson's blog: Genocide - a term we use too often or not enough

US – Cuba relations

The Argentine pontiff was also commended for brokering a diplomatic thaw between the US and Cuba, after inviting Cuban president, Raul Castro, to his studio near the Vatican’s public audience hall.

Castro said he was so impressed with the Pope that he was even considering converting to Catholicism.

The Cuban president, who is the brother of communist revolutionary leader Fidel, said: “If the pope keeps going the way he’s going, I’ll come back to the Catholic church.

I’ll come back to the Catholic church. Raul Castro

“When the pope goes to Cuba in September, I promise to go to all his masses, and with satisfaction.

“I am from the Cuban Communist party, that doesn’t allow [religious] believers, but now we are allowing it, it’s an important step,” Castro said.

The pontiff is said to have played a key role in secret negotiations between the US and Cuba, which led to the surprise announcement in December that the two countries would seek to restore diplomatic ties after more than 50 years of tensions.

“Raul Castro thanked the Pope for his mediation between Cuba and the United States,” Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said of the exchange, which also focussed on the pontiff’s forthcoming visit to Cuba.

Former Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said that Vatican diplomacy has already seen Francis set a bolder, more personal stamp on its foreign policy.

Watch: Pope Francis and Putin meet for first time 

He added: “He’s someone who’s capable of praying in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and then talking about the Armenian genocide. He’s not someone who’s bound by political correctness.

“It’s the diplomacy of a real leader.”


Speaking about elections in his home country of Argentina in December, the Pope said that candidates can become too beholden to donors who back their campaigns.

“Because many interests come into play in financing of an election campaign and then they ask you to pay back,” he said in the interview with Crux magazine. “So, the election campaign should be independent from anyone who may finance it.”

The election campaign should be independent from anyone who may finance it.

The Pope also said that a public finance system for elections would create more transparency.

“Perhaps public financing would allow for me, the citizen, to know that I’m financing each candidate with a given amount of money,” he said.

Some quickly seized on his comments to make the case for reforming the influence of money in American politics.

Republican congressman, John Sarbanes, an advocate of campaign finance reform, tweeted his support for the pope’s comments:

Drew Hammill, a spokesperson for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also told Bloomberg that the remarks were a welcome “call for an end to the contaminating influence of money in our democracy.”

Since assuming the papacy just over two years ago, he has also taken a relatively moderate stance on tolerating gay individuals and acknowledged the role that humans play in climate change.

Thorny issues

Only three months into his role, Francis told reporters during a visit to Brazil: “If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

In the same vein, he drove a deeper wedge between American conservatives and the Catholic Church by acknowledging that climate change is mostly man’s fault.

We have in a sense taken over nature.

“I don’t know if it is all [man’s fault] but the majority is, for the most part, it is man who continuously slaps down nature,” Francis told reporters. “We have in a sense taken over nature.”

Francis is expected to tell the planet’s 1.2 billion Catholics why acting on climate change is essential to the faith using an influential church document called an encyclical, during an address to the UN general assembly in September.