When government policies or the stance of countries on key issues go astray, voices are raised to uncompromisingly challenge the established order and make the case for an alternative way on the basis of reason and cardinal human values.
For years now Pope Francis has taken Europe, the United States and the developed world frontally on the question of refugees and migrants. The Pope has systematically opposed the inhumanity of their policies towards refugees in search of a safe haven and a better future. He has denounced their rabid xenophobia and narrow concerns about costs and cultural identity in the face of human suffering. He has preached humanity and the prime tenet from the Sermon on the Mount ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’
The world was therefore aghast at the recent horse trading between Europe and Turkey to arrive at a widely decried deal on refugees aimed at returning most of them back. According to its appalling terms, ‘irregular migrants’ whose claim for asylum is rejected are to be sent back to Turkey. In return, Turkey will benefit from a package comprising Euro 3 billion in aid, the access of Turkish nationals to the Schengen space and a restart of talks on Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. In a context of hardening attitudes of Europeans towards migrants, there have been mounting criticisms against the Greek government by those who want to raise the drawbridges of fortress Europe and shut its frontiers to refugees, for allowing the refugees crossing the Aegean Sea into Greece and for caring for them. Incensed at Greece being pilloried by fellow European countries, an exasperated Greek woman asked ‘What are we supposed to do, drown them?’
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox Church joint visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, at the heart of Europe’s migrant crisis, last Saturday therefore carried a potent message of compassion and solidarity. At the Moria camp in Lesbos, they saw the anguish in the eyes of distraught and destitute children and women and heard some of the poignant stories of the 850,000 people who have landed there in the past fleeing war and deprivation in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, in search of a peaceful and better future for themselves and their families. Despite historic divisions between the two churches estranged for more than a millennium, the two religious leaders who share a warm personal rapport spoke ‘as people of faith’ with one voice on behalf of the refugees. At the camp in Lesbos, they jointly called ‘the attention of the world to the grave humanitarian crisis faced by the refugees’ and pleaded ‘for its resolution… in a way worthy of our common humanity’.
Setting the tone by example, Pope Francis took three Syrian Muslim families made up of 12 refugees including six children, with him back to Rome aboard the papal plane. The related planning and paperwork to welcome the families had been done by the Vatican, Italy and Greece. A Catholic charitable association Sant’Egidio will take care of the families and help them find work, school for the children and generally adapt to life in Italy. Humanity has no religion.
* * *
The long standing alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia is facing its biggest challenge owing to a proposed bipartisan bill which, if passed by the US Congress, would allow the Saudi government to be held responsible in American courts for any role in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The Senate bill which is sponsored by Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas and Democrat Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York has the support of an unlikely coalition of liberal and conservative senators, including Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, one of the candidates contesting the Republican nomination for the US presidential elections scheduled on 8 November 2016.
Past efforts by families of 9/11 victims to hold diverse authorities, charities and organizations in Saudi Arabia liable on charges of financial support to terrorism have been thwarted owing to a large extent to a 1976 law which gives foreign nations some immunity from lawsuits in American courts.
The Obama administration has lobbied Congress to block the bill’s passage. State officials have warned of diplomatic and dire economic fallouts from the legislation. Saudi Arabia has threatened that the risk of such a law being passed would force them to sell up to $750 billion invested in treasury securities and other assets in the US before these are frozen by American courts.
The sponsors of the bill have argued that it has a very finite and restricted scope. Its intent is to clearly stipulate that the immunity given to foreign nations will not apply in cases where nations are found culpable for terrorist attacks that kill Americans on United States soil. However, if the bill were to be passed in both Houses of Congress and signed by the President, it could open the way for the role of Saudi Arabia to be examined in 9/11 lawsuits.
What has led to such a frontal dispute between two longstanding allies? Saudi officials have long denied that the kingdom had any role in the Sept. 11 plot. Most of the persons involved in the attacks were Saudi nationals. However, there have been persistent suspicions, partly because of the conclusions of a 2002 congressional inquiry into the attacks that cited some evidence that Saudi officials living in the United States at the time had a hand in the plot. Those conclusions, contained in 28 pages of the report, have not been released publicly.
Amid rising bipartisan calls to declassify these documents, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee released a statement this week saying that ‘the benefits of publishing this information would outweigh any potential damage to America’s national security. I encourage the administration to declassify this section of the Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks.’ Prior to his visit to Saudi Arabia this week, President Obama said that his director of national intelligence is reviewing the 28 classified pages from the 9/11 Commission report to see whether they can be released or not.
It must also be said that the decades old robust alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia has recently been strained and mired in disputes and tensions. It has been weakened following the conclusion of the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers led by the US in July 2015 amidst strong opposition from the Saudi government and recriminations about the role attributed to both countries in the stability of the Middle East. The US dependence on Saudi oil has been significantly reduced in the wake of enhanced US oil, gas and renewable energy production.
Furthermore, bipartisan criticism about the lack of oversight over the massive US sales of arms to the Saudis under the Obama Administration used in the conflict in Yemen has also frayed relations. Arguing that the war in Yemen has been a humanitarian disaster drawing widespread criticism and is not in the US national interest, Senators have earlier this month introduced another bipartisan resolution proposing to restrict American arms sales to Saudi Arabia. There have also been questions raised in the US about the Saudi government’s commitment to fight the Islamic State.
President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week has provided a timely opportunity to discuss matters that have strained the alliance such as the conflict in Yemen, the role of Iran and the fight against the Islamic State and clear the air with the Saudi monarch, King Salman. The thorniest issues were glossed over. However, deep differences remain.
* * *
Eliminating the terror nexus
Terrorism and the continued flux of refugees from war-torn countries are interlinked. Terrorism thrives owing to the nexus of its arms, revenue, manpower and financial support system. It is only the identification and destruction of this covert and organized nexus that can weaken and defeat terrorism. Eliminating terrorism is a sine qua non condition to pave the way to a lasting peace in war affected countries and a return of the refugees to their homelands.
* Published in print edition on 22 April 2016