Conference on Pope John Paul II

On the occasion of the celebration of the Pope’s Day organized by the “Foundation of the New Millenium” at Warsaw University, the Ambassador of Lebanon, Mr. Massoud Maalouf, was invited to speak to an audience of several hundred. Participants in the Conference included Cardinal Josef Glemp of Poland, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran from the Vatican, and the Vatican Ambassador to Poland Apostolic Nuncio Msgr. Josef Kowalczyk. Also present were members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to Poland and numerous political and religious personalities. The ambassadors of Colombia, Latvia and the Sovereign and Military Order of Malta also spoke on this occasion.

Ambassador Maalouf spoke about the role Pope John Paul II played in promoting dialogue between Christians and Moslems in the world and about the special concern that Pope John Paul II had for Lebanon.

To view the full text of Ambassador Maalouf’s Conference:


It is, indeed, a great honor for me to be invited by the “Foundation of the New Millennium” to speak about Pope John Paul II on the occasion of the celebration of the Pope’s Day in the prestigious Warsaw University. In my presentation today, I am confident I can provide a sincere and honest testimony of the Pope’s commitment to dialogue as a means of solving problems between nations, especially as it relates to the Middle East. First, I served as a diplomat in the Lebanese Embassy to the Vatican from 1983 to 1987. This posting allowed me to observe the initiatives of His Holiness aimed at the Arab and Islamic countries. Secondly, in numerous meetings with His Holiness, I came to know his deep commitment to dialogue. And finally, being a Catholic from an Arab country, Lebanon, whose population is comprised of Moslems and Christians alike, I have had a personal interest in the Holy Father’s initiatives directed at Lebanon.

Let me say from the outset that Pope John Paul II had a very special empathy for Lebanon. The civil war that ravaged Lebanon during a period that covered almost half of his Papacy was a source of great sorrow for him.

I will begin my presentation with a brief overview of the Pope’s most important endeavors aimed at nurturing dialogue given his strong belief in and very active promotion of dialogue between Christians and Moslems in the world. The second part of my presentation will focus on the special relations that His Holiness had with Lebanon, culminating with his historic visit to Lebanon in May 1997.

Pope John Paul II and the Islamic-Christian Dialogue:

In the long lasting conflict of the Middle East, Pope John Paul II spared no effort, during his Pontificate, to promote dialogue between the Israelis and the Arabs. At the time when, long before the Oslo Agreements were concluded in 1993 and when most of the West treated Yasser Arafat as a terrorist, John Paul II was one of the first prominent Western figures to view Arafat as a credible interlocutor for a negotiated solution to the Palestinian problem. Based on his deep conviction that the conflict could not be solved by military means, His Holiness received Arafat in the Vatican and he strongly encouraged him to pursue negotiation rather than military struggle. This same message was transmitted with the same fervor and resolve to all the Israeli leaders that His Holiness met over the years. Arabs are very mindful of the fact that as the Pope encouraged the Palestinians toward dialogue and negotiation in their struggle to regain their rights, he always supported the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people that, unfortunately, to this day continue to be denied to them by the Israeli occupation.

In the context of centuries old relations between Moslems and Catholics, John Paul II left his personal handprint in actions and measures that he took during the years of his Pontificate. It will not be possible to mention in this short period of time all the important decisions that he made in this regard, but I will highlight the most significant initiatives indicative of his strong and unwavering commitment to the Islamic-Christian dialogue:
1 – In the early 1980’s a project to build a mosque and an Islamic cultural center in Rome was opposed by some local leaders. The Pope not only supported the project giving it his blessing, but he also asked the municipality of the eternal city to donate a piece of land for this project. Had the Pope not taken this courageous stand we would not be seeing now, in the vicinity of Saint-Peter’s Cathedral, this beautiful Islamic Center where the Moslems of Rome can freely exercise their religious beliefs nearby their Catholic brothers.
2 – After the tragic events of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, His Holiness took a very decisive and courageous stand against the prevailing tendency of that time to erroneously link religion with terrorism. He convened a high level delegation of Christians and Moslems to meet in Rome where a statement was issued asserting that religions do not support terrorism. That was a clear recognition by the higher Catholic authority that Islam is not itself a source of terrorism contrary to what some leaders in the West were trying to aver. This initiative of the Pope was instrumental in decreasing the level of tensions between Christians and Moslems worldwide after September 11.
3 – Another major endeavor in promoting Islamic-Christian dialogue was John Paul II’s stance against the war on Iraq in 2003. Although His Holiness was not the only prominent figure in the West to take an anti-war position, his determination in trying to reach a solution to the problem by peaceful means instead of military action made it clear to the Islamic world that we are not at the threshold of an era of new crusades. Had the Pope not taken this unambiguous stand and had he not asserted that the war is immoral and unjustified, the extremists on both sides of the conflict would have undoubtedly succeeded in portraying this war as a war of religion between Christianity and Islam with all the tragic consequences that would have followed.
4 – It is also worth mentioning that His Holiness was against the embargo imposed on Libya in the mid 1980’s. He knew that subjecting countries to political and economic embargoes causes enormous suffering to the citizens of the countries rather than debilitating the regimes at which embargoes are aimed. And while this embargo on Libya was fully supported by many Western countries, the Pope chose, nonetheless, to restore full diplomatic relations between Libya and the Holy See in 1997.
5 – Another major achievement of the Pope in the Islamic-Christian relations is the signing of a special agreement in 1998 creating a joint committee between the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue of the Vatican and the Permanent Committee of Al-Azhar for Dialogue with Monotheistic Religions in Cairo.
This joint committee whose purpose is to promote understanding between the followers of the two faiths meets once a year alternately in Rome and in Cairo.
The foregoing are just a few significant actions that the Pope had taken at different junctures of his Papacy and which had a major impact on the relations between Islam and Christianity. Beside that, Pope John Paul II placed Islamic-Christian relations very high on his set of priorities as is evidenced by the numerous visits he made to Arab and Islamic countries. In addition, he received leaders of the Islamic faith in the Vatican on many occasions and included them in all the interfaith meetings he held throughout the world. Let me mention several of the most important visits made in this regard:
A – The first visit ever made by a pontiff to an Islamic country was John Paul II’s visit to Morocco in August 1985. In his address to the thousands of young Moslems in Casablanca the Pope said: “I believe that we, Christians and Moslems, must recognize with joy the religious values that we have in common, and give thanks to God for them. Both of us believe in one God, the only God, who is all justice and all mercy, we believe in the importance of prayer, of fasting, of almsgiving, of repentance and of pardon”. This address is typical of John Paul II’s numerous sermons and speeches in which he strived to find common ground between Christianity and Islam, focusing in particular on the common values that the two religions share.
B – During his visit to Egypt in 2000, which by itself was a great achievement for a Pope, John Paul II visited the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi at his residence. The meeting held between the two religious leaders was a historic step in the Islamic-Christian dialogue.
C – In 2001 John Paul II visited Syria, he made history by entering the Mosque of the Omayyades in Damascus where he knelt in prayer at the tomb of John the Baptist known in Islam as the prophet Yahya. No pope prior to John Paul II had ever visited a mosque.

D – The annual messages that the Vatican sends regularly to the Moslems of the world on the occasion of the end of the holy month of Ramadan typically carry the ideas and the teachings of the Pope by encouraging dialogue and understanding between Christian and Moslem peoples. John Paul II made a point of sending these messages in Arabic. And on 14 January 2001, the Holy Father took an unprecedented initiative by asking the Catholics of the world to pray and fast on the last day of Ramadan, the Moslem fasting period, in solidarity with the Moslems. As we are now in the middle of the month of Ramadan, I want to take this opportunity to extend to our Moslem brothers present with us today my best wishes for peace and prosperity.

I will speak now of the special relations that His Holiness maintained with Lebanon especially during the 12 years of the civil war that coincided with his Pontificate.

Pope John Paul II and Lebanon

As I mentioned earlier, John Paul II had always maintained very strong feelings toward Lebanon. His Eminence Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran whom we are honored to have with us today knows that very well. The long years of the civil war that ravaged our country between 1975 and 1990 were a source of pain and affliction to His Holiness. Although the war was erroneously portrayed as a religious and confessional conflict between Christians and Moslems, His Holiness did not automatically side with the Christians. And among the many actions that he took during the civil war time, I will highlight the most important in this respect:

1 – His Holiness consistently mentioned Lebanon in his sermons, discourses and audiences calling on the warring factions in Lebanon to solve the problem through dialogue and in peaceful means rather than through military action. The famous window of Saint-Peter’s Cathedral at which the Pope often stood to greet the public in St. Peter’s Square stands as a true witness to these countless appeals.

2 – The many Lebanese Moslem and Christian political and religious delegations that His Holiness received in the Vatican during these years always heard the same salient message: the solution to civil war is dialogue, understanding and compromise rather than a show of force. The Pope remained above the conflict, not taking sides. This stance was later very appreciated by all the factions once a peace agreement was signed in the Saudi city of Taef, where a negotiated compromise put an end to the war.

3 – The Holy Father did not limit himself to making verbal pronouncements for peace in Lebanon. He sent high-level delegations from the Vatican to Lebanon in order to assist in finding a negotiated settlement to the civil war. Two such delegations that stand out include one led by His Eminence Cardinal Casaroli and one led by His Eminence Cardinal Silvestrini. In addition, in the mid 1980’s the Pope sent a Spanish priest to live in the city of Jezzine as a special envoy of the Vatican to provide courage and comfort to the local citizens of this southern Lebanese village. This remains a very fond memory for the people of the region.

4 – With the Taef Agreement signature in October 1989 that led to the end of the Lebanese civil war, the Pope wanted to help Lebanon heal the wounds of the war and overcome its tragedies. On June 12, 1991 he announced his decision to convene an Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Lebanon. Representatives of the Orthodox Church and the 3 Islamic confessions in Lebanon, Shiite, Sunni and Druze, were invited. The November and December 1995 meetings of the Synod promulgated an Apostolic Exhortation under the title “A New Hope For Lebanon”. This historic document develops the views of the Vatican and the Pontiff himself on the status of the Catholic Church in Lebanon and its role in establishing friendly relations between the different communities living in Lebanon.
The “Apostolic Exhortation” focuses on the pluralism of the Lebanese society and encourages the Lebanese to live together in freedom, mutual respect and dignity. It also calls on Lebanon to be a model society for other nations in the region.

5 – Pope John Paul II visited Lebanon on May 10 and 11, 1997. He was warmly welcomed by all Lebanese, Christians and Moslems alike. During this historic visit, His Holiness signed the “Exhortation” and in one of his inspiring speeches he mentioned that Lebanon is not only a country, but it is also a “message”, meaning that Lebanon is to serve as an example of a country where people of different religions can live in harmony, peace and dignity.

6 – Another gesture of the Holy Father was the beatification and the canonization of two Lebanese saints. Pope John Paul II canonized one of the two saints, Sister Rafka of Lebanon, in 1997 on the same day as Santa Faustina of Poland. For this reason Santa Faustina is now very popular in the Catholic community of Lebanon. The Cathedral in Krakow that bears her name, Santa Faustina, was the destination this past summer of Lebanese pilgrims that came to Poland on two chartered planes.
Of course Wadowice, the place of birth of the Pope is also a destination for Lebanese Catholic pilgrims as is the famous Czarna Madona of Czestochowa.

In conclusion, I would like to give you some of my personal reflections:

1. His Holiness will be revered throughout history for his indefatigable efforts to safeguard the spiritual values of our world and to preserve peace and stability worldwide. If we have the impression that the world has not changed much in spite of the Pope’s endeavors, and if armed conflicts and human suffering still exist, does it mean necessarily that John Paul II did not make any difference? In order to answer this question, let us only wonder how the world would be had the Pope not taken his courageous stand in refusing to link religion with terrorism after September 11, had he not spoken up against the war in Iraq and had he not supported the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people?

2. What Pope John Paul II has accomplished has not fallen on deaf ears. His message of dialogue and understanding has been well received by most of the leaders of the Arab and Islamic world. Many of these leaders have outwardly expressed their appreciation for the Pope’s endeavors. I can say with a high degree of certainty that if the world is not experiencing today a clear divide and an open conflict between Christianity and Islam, in spite of the situation in Palestine and Iraq and in the Middle East at large, it is mostly due to the fact that the leaders in that region have understood the Pope’s message and taken steps to implement it. Their massive participation in the funeral of the Pope and the outpouring of sentiments from the Middle East and the Islamic world on the sad occasion of the Pope’s passing are reflective of the Arab and Islamic world’s esteem for the Holy Father.

3. Finally, I strongly believe that Pope John Paul II’s Polish background explains, at least in part, why he was so committed to dialogue and peace. The hardships of growing up in a country under occupation and his exposure to the Polish historical perspective solidified his determination to encourage dialogue as a mechanism for solving armed conflicts in the world. He believed that such conflicts only resulted in further suffering of innocent people and impeded their development. Pope John Paul II was truly a man of peace. Pope Benedict XVI also comes from a country that has been marked by wars and destruction. He subscribes to the same school of thought that promotes dialogue and understanding among nations. I am confident that Pope Benedict XVI will carry John Paul II’s message of peace forward and, God willing, the call will be heard by all.

Thank you