VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Concern about the growing tensions between the United States and Iran has been bubbling within the Vatican, as Pope Francis and high-ranking prelates urge global leaders to employ self-restraint and dialogue.
“Dear brothers and sisters, in many parts of the world there is a terrible feeling of tension in the air,” Pope Francis told the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square after his Angelus prayer on Sunday (Jan. 5).
“War brings only death and destruction,” he continued. “I call upon all parties involved to fan the flame of dialogue and self-control, and to banish the shadow of enmity.”
Though Francis did not refer directly to Iran or the United States, the timing of his words coincided with the rising hostility between the two countries, which led Vatican observers to view the pope’s words as a direct appeal to the two parties in question.
On Friday, the United States retaliated against Iranian-backed attacks by issuing a targeted strike in Iraq against Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who President Donald Trump said posed an “immediate threat” against American lives.
Soleimani, who kept a low profile for most of his influential military career, was considered a terrorist by the United States, but not by a large part of the international community, including Iran, where he was deemed something of a “national hero.” After the assassination, the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, promised a “tough revenge” on those responsible.
In this grim geopolitical landscape, Cardinal Peter Turkson, who heads the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said that “while we speak peace, there are still forces in the world … that will speak violence to us, and it is only when we hold on to the hand of the Lord himself, the Prince of Peace, that we are able to overcome all of these obstacles.”
Speaking to Vatican News, he noted that the escalation between the United States and Iran took place shortly after Christmas and the New Year, “which we began with such enthusiasm; such hopefulness for peace and tranquility,” only to be met with “news of violence and war in other parts of the world.”
Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Paul Gallagher at the Vatican, whose roles are similar to that of a foreign minister, have not released statements on the U.S.-Iran situation so far. Neither have the U.S. bishops, who for the time being seem to have chosen to wait and watch how the situation unfolds.
Numerous religious groups and representatives in the United States have spoken up to support or condemn the military strike. In a statement released Friday, the president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, Sister Patricia McDermott, opposed the U.S.-backed attack.
“Far from fostering peace in a troubled part of the world, this reckless decision will only escalate violence and increase suffering for millions of people. We call on our government to reject violence and militarism and instead to engage in the hard work of diplomacy,” she wrote.
Reaction from Catholic representatives in Iran and Iraq have focused on promoting peace and dialogue, encouraging citizens of all religions and beliefs to hold on to dialogue and diplomacy.
The assassination of Soleimani “creates apprehension and shows us how difficult it is to build and believe in peace,” said Archbishop Leo Boccardi, the Vatican representative to Iran, in an interview with Vatican News released Friday.
“The appeal is to lower tension, to call everyone to negotiation and to believe in dialogue knowing that, as history has always shown us, war and weapons aren’t the solution to the problems afflicting the world today,” he added.
Boccardi appealed to the global community, asking for commitment and collaboration in ensuring peace in the Middle East. Beyond the respect for the rule of law, the bishop insisted that “conflict must be rejected” in favor of “weapons of justice and goodwill.”
In Iraq, Cardinal Louis Rafaël Sako, the patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, expressed the dismay felt by people living in the country after news of the attack and spoke in defense of national sovereignty and autonomy.
“It is deplorable that our country should be transformed into a place where scores are settled, rather than being a sovereign nation, capable of protecting its own land, its own wealth, its own citizens,” he said.
During a Mass on Monday to celebrate the Epiphany, when the three Magis are said to have offered their gifts to the newly born Christ, Sako encouraged people to exercise restraint and have wisdom to avoid the “volcanic eruption we are about to face.”
“Innocent people will be the fuel for such fire,” he said.