In March 2003, just hours after the first American cruise missiles slammed into Baghdad, the Vatican proclaimed the nascent conflict a "defeat for reason and for the gospel." It was a war, said papal confidant Cardinal Roberto Tucci, that was "beyond all legality and all international legitimacy." Strong words coming from the clerical leaders of some 1.5 billion Roman Catholics and indicative of the rift that still dogs relations between the president and the pope.
As Pope Benedict XVI visits the United States for the first time as head of state, both the Vatican and the White House insist that their differences over the war in Iraq are a thing of the past. "Obviously there was a difference of opinion back in 2003 and beyond, in subsequent years," said White House press secretary Dana Perino. "But now I think that there is an understanding that...the most important thing we can do is help to solidify the situation." But after reporters pressed her on the schism, she said: "I really don't think that the president is planning to spend a lot of time talking about the issues of Iraq with the pope."
Last year, the pope publicly declined a request from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to meet and discuss issues in the Middle East and Iraq, presumably in a show of displeasure with the plight of Iraqi Christians. But it was also a snub to Rice, who, on the eve of the war in March 2003, said she couldn't understand the Vatican's opposition to the war.
The church's opposition to the war began long before the 2003 invasion. Pope John Paul II also opposed the 1991 Gulf War and the U.N.-imposed sanctions that followed, and he remained one of the most ardent opponents of the current Iraq conflict until his death in 2005. The central objections from Rome lay with the unilateralist approach pursued by the Bush administration, its insistence on the right of pre-emptive war and to detain hundreds of people at Guantánamo Bay, and the consequences that a war with a Muslim nation would have on interfaith relations, according to longtime Vatican watcher John Allen in his 2004 book, All The Pope's Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks.
The war itself marked a failure of months of high-energy Vatican diplomacy between Europe, Baghdad, and Washington. On the eve of the war in 2003, Pope John Paul II lost his temper in a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. And the pontiff, by one account, "used words and gestures bordering on a diplomatic incident." A few days later, in a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the pope "raised his voice, pointed an accusing finger... and even banged his fist on the table," according to a Catholic newspaper.
Pope Benedict has also vehemently opposed the war using language that has not tempered with time. "Nothing positive comes from Iraq, torn apart by continual slaughter as the civil population flees," the pope said in his Easter message last year.
Thousands of Iraq's Christians have fled the country, and many have been killed in the violence, an issue of central concern to the current occupant of the throne of St. Peter. In addition, the Iraqi Constitution, which says that Islam is a "fundamental source" of legislation for the country, has irked many in the church who fear that the rights of religious minorities will not be protected.
An estimated 3 percent of Iraq's 26 million people are Christians—consisting mainly of Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Roman Catholics. "Reconciliation is urgently needed....Terrorist attacks, threats of violence continue, especially against the Christian community," the pope said this January in his annual address to Vatican diplomats.
Though they have largely tried to stay out of the conflict, Christians have been targeted repeatedly by various factions in the Iraq war, particularly in the cities of Baghdad and Mosul. In June, three deacons and a priest were killed in Mosul. Earlier this month, Adel Yousif, a Syrian Orthodox priest in Baghdad's Karrada district, was shot and killed in downtown Baghdad. And in March, Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho was killed in Mosul, along with a driver and two of his bodyguards. Benedict personally presided over a memorial service for Rahho, as is typical for when an archbishop dies. "Enough with the slaughters. Enough with the violence," the pope told a crowd in St. Peter's Square at the end of his Palm Sunday mass last month. "Enough with the hatred in Iraq!"