IN a symbolic gesture of reconciliation in the aftermath of the Gulf war, Cardinal Basil Hume and the Patriarch of Baghdad, Raphael I Bidawid embraced each other at the start of the Vatican's Middle East peace summit this week. The patriarch said that 150,000 Iraqis had perished in the conflict.
Over 20 cardinals, archbishops and patriarchs, all representing the countries most involved in the six-week conflict, met for two days in the Bologna Hall of the Apostolic Palace to stress what the Vatican sees as priorities for Middle East peace.
With curia officials to his right and patriarchs and bishops to his left, Pope John Paul II opened the meeting with a reminder that the church's duty now that the war had ended was charity. "United here are the pastors of the peoples who confronted each other with force . . . Today, from the heart of the church, these same pastors are calling upon these countries to become reconciled", the Pope said. John Paul went on to list the issues he believed were of the "utmost importance". He highlighted respect for the principle of territorial integrity, the need for solutions to decades-old problems now representing sources of continuous tension, greater regulation of all kinds of arms tradiag and agreements aimed at disarmament.
"Only when a response has been given to these questions will Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinian and Cypriot people be able to co-exist in peace", he said.
In his address, he reserved special attention for the plight of the Palestinians, a people he described as "wandering". For over 40 years Palestinians had known only this condition.
Neither could the world forget that since 1975, Lebanon had been "in agony" and "its territory is still occupied by nonLebanese forces today", John Paul said.
There was yet another papal rebuke for Arab countries intolerant of Christian communities and he made a rare, explicit mention of Saudi Arabia where Catholics may not celebrate masses openly.
But John Paul's most fervent
appeal seemed to be addressed to the international community and it is known that he called the meeting with patriarchs and bishops in the hope that the Vatican initiative would accelerate the organisation of an international peace conference on the Middle East.
The Pope reiterated that the church harboured no political ambitions but sought only to give the international community "indications".
At the end of the gathering Cardinal Basil Hume and Archbishop Thomas Winning of Glasgow, another of the participants, issued a joint statement urging that the end of hostilities should not be seen as bringing peace to the region. Growing understanding between Judaism, Christianity and Islam was "vital" to any political solution in the Middle East, the two church leaders said. They appealed that such dialogue be undertaken with vigour in Britain.