Vatican 'foreign minister' talks Middle East, Ukraine, China and antisemitism - interview

Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher discusses foreign policy and antisemitism with a representative from the American Jewish Committee.

 PAUL RICHARD Gallagher, Vatican Secretary for Relations, meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Vatican, earlier this month.  (photo credit: VATICAN MEDIA/REUTERS)
PAUL RICHARD Gallagher, Vatican Secretary for Relations, meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Vatican, earlier this month.

VATICAN CITY – Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States, can be said to be Pope Francis’ partner in carrying out the Vatican’s foreign policy. The following interview took place shortly before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to Rome and meeting with Francis, earlier this month. At this meeting, Zelensky graciously but firmly turned down the Vatican’s offer for mediation, outlining Ukraine’s 10 ironclad preconditions for talks.

The war in Ukraine is of great concern to us all and particularly to Pope Francis. We share common hopes for peace but face seemingly irreconcilable contradictions. The Vatican supports Ukraine’s right to self-defense and its territorial integrity (Zelensky’s primary premise for entering negotiations) while Russia makes a ceasefire and meeting dependent on the prior annexation of parts of Ukraine. Do you see a way out?

Well, yes, but it is problematic. The diplomatic process of the Holy See consists, a little bit, of juggling the agenda. Like a juggler, we must keep the ball in the air – you don’t want the ball falling on the ground. We need to keep the idea of a peace process alive. We recognize the difficulties, we understand the sufferings of the Ukrainian people and the stance of their leaders. But at the same time, as Zelensky said long ago, “This war will end at the negotiating table.” So, whatever we can do – our efforts are designed to try and bring about the arrival at that negotiating table, as soon as possible.

True to time-proven tradition, the Vatican always keeps its doors open for dialogue with both sides. Francis would like to visit both Kyiv and Moscow. Zelensky has invited him but no invitation is forthcoming from Putin. Will that pose a problem?

I don’t know what the Holy Father has decided, whether he wants to visit just one of the capitals...? He has always said he wanted to go to both. And I think the matter is still wishy. We’ll just have to see. If it seems right to go to Ukraine, fine. If it seems impossible to go to Moscow, then that will have to be accepted.

 Pope Francis holds the weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, March 8, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE)
Pope Francis holds the weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, March 8, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE)

Iran and China’s relations with Russia are considered quite problematic. Iran, the main sponsor of international terrorism and a threat to the entire world, now supplies Russia with arms. Both countries are major human rights violators. Yet China wants to be a mediator between Ukraine and Russia. What do you think of these relations?

The first consideration, as we were saying, is the Holy See’s position that it is incumbent upon any nation, any actor, to do what they can to bring an end to this war. We encourage all to do that. So, if China can make a contribution, if they have channels of access to Moscow and also to Kyiv, we could only be satisfied with that. As to Iran, we have always said that Iran in its dealings with the international community must act in a responsible way.

Particularly in the Middle East area, we have always believed that Iran is a very important player in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Obviously, we would like to see them make a positive contribution to this situation. Maybe that means that they’ve got to review – change – their policies. In our relations with them, we would be encouraging that. We have full diplomatic relations with Iran. Christians are not without challenges in Iran and we continue to work with the authorities to improve the conditions of life for Catholics in Iran. Sometimes there is some success and other times there is less, but we remain engaged with the Iranian authorities.

What about China and its human rights record?

Obviously, the policy does at times flag up on issues of human rights when we are talking to them, but our contacts with the Chinese authorities are limited. We are mainly concerned with the implementation of the agreement that we’ve signed with them and the appointment of bishops. We don’t have very much else on the agenda than that. But we try to promote, from the Catholic point of view, a progressive normalization of relations between the Catholic communities in China and the government, and to enable Chinese Catholics to make their contribution to the good of society. We agree that Chinese Catholics can be good citizens, as well as good Catholics, and obviously, we support that. But our influence on other human rights issues is very, very limited. Given the opportunity, we would not hesitate to show concern. And we also believe that we need to engage, and as you were saying yourself, in a very positive way rather than just in the sense of interference.

But as you know, there is particular concern over the fate of the Muslim Uyghur minority in China. It’s public knowledge that they have been subjected to massive deportations from their homes into re-education camps where they undergo ethnic brainwashing of their cultural and religious heritage, with children torn from their parents, husbands and wives separated, and much violence committed. Have you tried to speak to Chinese authorities about all this?

Well, if I’m not mistaken, when I met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Munich, three years ago, we did say that we did kind of understand international concern over certain human rights issues in China. But if I remember correctly, I didn’t go into any detail.


Another issue of present concern is over the fate of Evan Gershkovich, a young American correspondent of The Wall Street Journal arrested and imprisoned in Moscow on charges of espionage. The US has denied this accusation and stated he is being unlawfully detained. Can the Vatican help him regain his freedom?

Well, we will, of course, follow at a distance the unfolding of his trial now. We certainly hope that this young man receives all the necessary assistance that he has the right to and we hope that the Russian justice system will treat him fairly. We hope that the truth can be visible and will be acted on by those in authority.

But we know Russia will continue to insist that he was actually spying, while the US denies this and insists that he was just doing his job as an investigative journalist.

Well, we obviously don’t have any privileged information that would enable us to say which side is right and which side is wrong...

Let’s return, for a moment, to Iran. Its race to produce nuclear weapons, along with its financing of international terrorism everywhere, makes it a real obstacle to peace. How do you see future developments?

We‘ve been very supportive of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] from the beginning when it was being negotiated. We regretted that it sort of fell apart and we are supportive of its renegotiation. I can understand there are some people, like in the previous American administration, who did not feel that it was a good agreement and maybe there’s room for improvement. We would also be happy to see improvement. But we do consider it as an asset as being of help to the security of the Middle East and therefore, of the whole world. And we are committed to a nuclear-free world, so we see this as one of the issues of the day.

This brings us to Israel and the Middle East: Do you have any words of wisdom to share regarding the present turmoil?

Well, I don’t have any words of wisdom. Obviously, we are concerned with the rise of violence in Israel/Palestine. We regret that this does seem to be creating other obstacles to political improvement. We still very much hope that direct negotiations can begin once again between Israel and Palestine. We think that the Abraham Accords were useful and that they have brought about understanding and the normalization of relations between Israel and certain Arab States. That’s good, providing it isn’t done to prejudice the Palestinians and the situation and it works to improve relations and reduce violence, and greater justice between these two peoples.

And your thoughts on the turbulence within Israel?

They are part of the internal affairs of Israel. We understand that there are strong feelings on both sides with regard to judicial reform as proposed and promised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We hope that these matters can be resolved in an open and free debate with respect for a true and democratic process. I think that we are also concerned because any weakening of Israel in its relations with some of the other states in the region is not good for the peace we would like to see throughout the entire region.

Now, whether this might mean that there will be developments within the government with alignment by other actors coming in to form part of the government, these are matters to be discussed by Israelis and by the Israeli parties but certainly, it’s obvious that Israel is not in a good place at the moment.

These very big demonstrations every weekend – and now on both sides, as people come out to demonstrate in favor of the present Netanyahu government proposals – polarize society. And the polarized societies we have seen in other parts of the world are weakened societies. That’s not good for Israelis.

Perhaps the good news we can glean from these demonstrations is that today, even after more than 20 weeks of ongoing protests, there has still been no violence, which I think is clear evidence that Israel’s democracy is well and vibrant.

I think you’re right, and that’s good. And we would hope that Israel and Israelis and the military and police forces could demonstrate similar prudence and restraint in dealing with other groups both within and outside Israel.

Well, the big problems in this regard are the continuous Palestinian terror attacks on peaceful civilians on Israeli streets and the periodic barrage of missiles aimed at the inhabitants of cities. I think it is tragic that Israelis and Palestinians have often been so close to peace and on the verge of signing agreements but that they have been turned down by Palestinians every time at the last minute. Could the Vatican offer greater encouragement toward accepting a realistic and workable compromise?

We have done that and we do recognize that, historically, there have been moments, as you say, when a solution did seem to be on the horizon. Yes, people need to work harder to find more political will. And I think that most people would agree, as experience would say, that what you need is the politics of small gestures, confidence-building gestures, gaining confidence. The thing which is so lacking in the world today between countries and leaders is trust and we need to build that up. At the moment, I don’t think we’re there and that’s what I believe the international community should be working on.

Yet, there has been so much cooperation in the past and even now between Israeli Jews and Palestinians both within and outside Israel that people don’t either know about or prefer not to talk about. The civil societies of the two peoples continue to work together on interreligious, intercultural, commercial and humanitarian projects. The international community seems unwilling to see or publicize this sufficiently.

Well, all that we can do is hope in the magic of compromise. And what we hope is that people will be seeking the true common good of their people. And that is not an idealistic thing, it’s not an ideological thing, it’s something that’s “Let’s see what’s the best deal on the table.”

Another burning issue: Antisemitism and antisemitic violence have increased at alarming rates worldwide. Presently, 160 Jewish organizations from six countries are urging the United Nations to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) non-legally-binding working definition of antisemitism – already accepted by 39 countries and many international bodies, including those of the European Union. The US has announced a national strategy to counter antisemitism in which the IHRA plays a key part. Its value is based on the idea that in order to fight antisemitism, we must first define it. The Vatican has not adopted this definition in the past. Might it possibly do so now?

Well, I must give you the same answer that I have given before to you and other groups representing Jews in the world. The answer is no, there isn’t any possibility. We feel that what comes out of Nostra Aetate [In our time] and the position of the Popes for many decades now is very clear. Pope Francis has renewed his denunciation of antisemitism and his commitment to working within the Church for the eradication of antisemitism. We do believe our commitment is clear and certain. I think you’re right, there is a rise in antisemitism at this point in time. That is one thing we see so often, that Jews have been made the scapegoat whenever the world faces difficulties and problems, such as those we face today. We’re not complacent but we really don’t find it necessary to adopt this particular definition.

Then would it be possible to internationally update Catholic educational materials by incorporating “Nostra Aetate” plus subsequent documents on Catholic-Jewish and Interreligious dialogue, inserting them into academic programs in Catholic schools on all levels, including Seminaries for future priests – perhaps adding the history of Jews and the Jewish contribution to Western civilization as an integral part of teaching national and world history?

Yes, there could be more of this, adapted to different experiences in different parts of the world. In some areas, people might not even know what we are talking about because they have no Jewish presence. Or they do, but unfortunately, also have a tendency to forget history, or consider the Holocaust almost ancient history. Yes, this can be done, but I am sure in Catholic institutions around the world much attention is already being given.

We might add that much of the development of democracy is due to the contribution of the Hebrew Bible. For example, one of the seven commandments of the Noahic Covenant addressed to all peoples is to set up courts of law in every society. This became a fundamental rule of democracy. It works against dictatorships and has had an impact on all democratic institutions, even the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And we will be celebrating its 75th anniversary next December. Yes, that’s something that should be stressed more. It goes back to the ethical campaign years ago when there were efforts to get the Judeo-Christian roots of Europe recognized, which was at that time rejected. We would like to think that this decision might be reviewed in the future because that’s really asserting the very fundamental truth of what the European continent is about. And obviously, Europe has had an influence on so many other parts of the world.

The writer is a representative in Italy and liaison to the Holy See of AJC – American Jewish Committee.