ROME – Despite being the smallest state in the world, when it comes to diplomacy the Vatican plays in the big leagues. Today, it’s actively involved in peace talks in Africa, from the Central African Republic to Ethiopia, in mending past wounds with Cuba and North Korea, and in promoting welcoming policies for immigrants in the world and especially the West.
That’s why when a major diplomatic conference takes place, such as the MEDiterranean Dialogues in Rome Nov. 22-24, the Vatican pays attention. The event was aimed at addressing political and diplomatic opportunities and challenges in the Mediterranean region.
Knowing the standpoints of the Russians, Palestinians and Israelis who attended the summit offers important insight on the state of the Middle East, but also indicates what role the Vatican can play in promoting its agenda and who it may consider an ally or an obstacle – including, this time, Japan.
Japan: carrying the torch of free trade in the Middle East
“The Middle East is not a region one usually associates with Japan,” said Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Taro Kono, opening his speech at the event, “but it’s a very important part of the world for Asia.”
Almost half of all shipping containers sent to the Mediterranean region are loaded in Asia, and 50 percent of cargo sent to Asia originates in the Mediterranean region. Almost four million barrels of crude oil pass through the Suez Canal every day, not to mention that Malta and Spain are the second and third main exporters of tuna, making them “indispensable for our sushi as well!” Kono said.
Also, Japan is experiencing the threat of terrorism originating in the Middle East and over 200,000 Japanese people have moved to Mediterranean countries, a number expected to grow.
“Stability in the region is essential for the Japanese economy,” the minister said.
As Japan promises to increase its presence in the Mediterranean region, Pope Francis expressed his wish to visit the country next year during an audience with Japanese representatives in Sept. 2018.
Over the weekend, Kono visited the Vatican “for a conversation aimed at further strengthening the relations between Japan and the Holy See and a discussion on the realization of the trip by His Holiness the Pope to Japan,” a statement by the Japanese embassy read.
“We have to introduce a real market economy,” Kono said, adding that investments in technology and environmental sustainability are a priority to bringing peace.
Japan’s involvement may also provide the practical benefit of counterbalancing China’s extensive presence in the region.
“If China grows peacefully it will provide economic opportunity worldwide,” Kono allowed, adding that “we have to be very careful” of the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, which has seen Beijing invest massively to facilitate trade with the developing world and which, he said, can be “a death trap” for some countries.
Palestine: You abandoned us
Francis has been as clear as his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI: The only way out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a “two-state solution.” Most recently, the Holy See condemned a decision by the United States to move their embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Earlier this year Francis donated $100,000 to Unrwa, the UN association that caters to the needs of immigrants and refugees in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The move was announced by Francis’s point man at the UN, Archbishop Bernadito Auza, not long after the United States decided to withhold over $300 million.
Auza, the Vatican’s permanent observer at the UN, reinforced that the Holy See backs “renewal of the negotiations among the interested parties toward achieving a two-state solution, Israel and Palestine, so that they may live side by side in peace and security within internationally recognized borders.”
While the Vatican remains steadfast, representatives from Palestine attending the MED dialogues expressed frustration at the international community.
“We are extremely disappointed,” said Riyad Malki, the Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates.
According to Malki, immigration has taken hold of global attention and slowed practical action in bringing peace. He reminded attendees that there are over 5.5 million Palestinian refugees displaced by the ongoing conflict.
“The Palestinian issue is here to stay, knocking on every door to remind you that we are still here,” he said.
Malki took issue especially with the United States, saying the only hope lies in the European Union in partnership with sympathizing Arab countries, like Egypt.
His biggest criticism was for the many politicians, lobbyists and activist in the room.
“You allowed the Israeli siege over Gaza for 12 years and did nothing. You allowed yourself to live with it,” he said.
Israel: Don’t try to beat us, join us!
“For all of Israel’s success, there is one thing that continues to bother me,” said Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, speaker of Israel’s parliament, which was that “the cooperation in countries miles away from Israel cannot be found in the countries right in our backyard.”
In terms of financial, technological and political cooperation, Edelstein had one message: “Don’t try to beat us, join us!”
Francis met Israeli President Reuven Rivlin during an audience at the Vatican Nov. 15. A Vatican communique said that they discussed the city of Jerusalem and its religious importance for Muslims, Jews and Christians and how to safeguard “its identity and its vocation as a city of peace.”
The Israeli representative seemed more concerned with other key players in the area, mainly Iran and Russia.
“It is true that Iranian nuclear capability would be a disaster,” Edelstein said. Russia’s position in the region is more complicated to determine, the speaker said, while making clear that “under no circumstances could we allow Iranian bases and airports in Syria, and Russia knows that very well.”
He underlined that Israel, in his view, prefers to find action-based means to ease the relationship with Palestine, especially in commerce and trade.
“If the ideal of a peace process is this idea of two courageous leaders getting into a room and shaking hands, it doesn’t work,” Edelstein said. “The only way to get back to the situation where we can do something is cooperation in practical fields.”
The Vatican’s tenuous relationship with Russia
Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, stressed the importance of preserving the Christian presence in the Middle East.
“I am concerned by the very fast process by which the Christian presence is being reduced drastically,” he said. “This is happening in countries where, since time immemorial, Christians have lived.”
It’s not the only place where the Vatican and the Kremlin see eye to eye. Lavrov said that when it comes to intervening in the Middle East, self-determination is key to avoiding crises.
“Only on the basis of international law can we resolve the situation in Syria,” he said, “everything must be done by the Syrians themselves in the spirit of mutual consent.”
This view coincided with what most clergy and lay Christians on the ground say when discussing the reality in Syria and elsewhere.
Lavrov also expressed worry in what he perceives as a global trend “to substitute international law as we know it, and I hope still know it, with something our Western friends call rule-based law.”
This approach, he said, threatens to dismantle relationships among states and create an elite of nations who have the final say.
According to the foreign minister, “easy does it” in terms of one nation, or a handful of elite nations, trying to set global terms.
“The oldest problems can only be resolved collectively. We want the Mediterranean to get back its historic role of a bridge between civilizations,” he said.
“Easy,” however, doesn’t really describe Russia’s policy in the Crimean region of Ukraine, which instead qualifies as military action on foreign territory.
Vatican representatives often avoid stirring the waters with Russia, but tensions over Ukraine, worsened by a break in communion between the Orthodox Church in Russia and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church recognized by Constantinople, have nevertheless made things more complicated.
Speaking to Italian media, Francis’s top diplomatic aide, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, expressed skepticism over the possibility of a deal with the Orthodox Church, and during his Sunday Angelus, Francis commemorated the Holodomor famine anniversary, which is at the heart of a dispute between Russia and Ukraine on whether it was or was not a genocide.
“We are not pretending to be heroes,” Lavrov said, referring to the situation in the Middle East, where he claims Russia is “putting pressure gently, gently.”
“There’s a Russian saying: You are afraid of me, then you respect me,” he said. “I’m not saying that we want respect through scaring everybody. What we want is a mutual respect for dialogue.”