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Huntley: Pope's activism might muddy Mideast peace hopes

Pope Francis charms the globe with his affable, humble and open personality. But his amiability masks an activist brand of politics that often leans left and can sometimes be troubling, even potentially damaging when it comes to Mideast peace hopes.


Certainly Francis follows long Christian tradition in taking up the cause of the poor. His criticism of capitalism and free markets, while harsh, falls within the bounds of political discourse even in America, the great exemplar of free enterprise.

He embraces the global warming crusade. That may be hard to square with his advocacy for the poor. Fossil fuels power the economic engine that is lifting millions of people out of poverty in the developing world. Still, climate change is a cause celebre embraced by those of many faiths.

The diplomatic thaw between the U.S. and Cuba is credited to diplomacy by Francis, the first pontiff from Latin America. Legitimate arguments exist on whether the resumption of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana is a good thing after half a century of hostility. Yet, the reality remains that beyond the release of a few dozen political prisoners as a diplomatic gesture, the Castro regime persists in punishing dissent.

“In today’s Cuba, it remains virtually impossible for anyone to peacefully express ideas opposing the Cuban government,” reports Amnesty International. It quoted the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation in counting 8,899 short-term detentions in 2014, up from 6,424 the previous year.

So it was more than a little uncomfortable to see Francis give a warm welcome to dictator Raul Castro at the Vatican this month. The pope’s planned trip to Havana in September can only give more legitimacy to a regime guilty of gross human rights violations.

Concerns over the propriety of Francis hobnobbing with Castro pale compared with his potentially damaging meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Vatican has announced it will recognize the “state of Palestine.” There is no such nation and such a declaration from the Holy See will just encourage the Palestinians to continue to reject peace talks as the legitimate path to statehood and proceed with unilateral policies that are inimical to the possibility of a lasting settlement.

Even worse, in welcoming President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority to the Vatican in mid-May, Francis was quoted by the New York Times and the Associated Press as saying, in Italian, “You are an angel of peace.” This was such an outrageous characterization of Abbas that a few days later the Times reported that a couple of Italian media outlets had the pope telling Abbas, “May you be an angel of peace.”

Either way, an angel of peace is something Abbas has never been. The parameters of a settlement to the decades-old conflict have been known for years. Yet Abbas never even responded to a peace offering by Israel in 2008. Only last year Abbas scuttled Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to revive peace negotiations by pursuing a unilateral strategy of seeking recognition via membership in international organizations. Time and again he has walked away from negotiations.

How can “an angel of peace” countenance terrorism? The Palestinian Media Watch reports that the Palestinian Authority glorifies terrorism by naming sports contests, other events, streets and squares after terrorists such as a suicide bomber who killed 31 Israelis at a Passover feast. The PMW website also documented that, despite objections from European donor nations, the Abbas government continues to funnel donor funds to convicted terrorists. Celebration of murder and hostility to, even denial of, Israel’s existence are constant traits of Palestinian politics under Abbas.

In a trip to the Holy Land last year, Francis asked for the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians to join him in a “heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace.” To that end the pope, in his Middle East diplomacy, might be well advised to remember the guiding principle of physicians: First do no harm.