VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis received in private audience today Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament.
The Holy Father and the Catholic-educated but self-declared atheist German politician spent 30 minutes in private talks, during which Schulz invited the Pope to give an address to the Parliament, which is the legislative body of the European Union.
Unusually for such an audience, the Vatican did not release a statement, but according to Schulz, issues relating to poverty, youth unemployment and immigration were discussed. Particular reference was made to the Oct. 3 tragedy off the Italian island of Lampedusa in which more than 300 refugees, mostly from Eritrea, drowned in a shipwreck.
Oct. 11 was the exact day 25 years ago that Blessed Pope John Paul II addressed the Parliament at its headquarters in Strasbourg, France — a point Schulz noted in an editorial he penned for L’Osservatore Romano Oct. 11. Schulz wrote that he was concerned about Europe’s “slow but inexorable decline,” saying the continent “must again be animated by a renewed sense of dedication to clear objectives.”
Those objectives, he said, must be that Europe is judged “on the basis of how it treats the least,” that the continent “must be a force for dialogue,” and that it needs to be judged “on the basis of the prospects it offers to the youth.”
Lampedusa, he wrote, represented “indelible scars for Europe” and he called for changes to how Europe engages with the countries of origin and the implementation of an improved rescue system. Referring to high levels of youth unemployment, he said Europe is betraying its young citizens.
Despite the Pope’s tendency to make spontaneous gestures, Francis did not accept Schulz’s invitation to address the Parliament immediately, but sources say they would not be surprised if he did. Benedict XVI was similarly invited to Strasbourg, although he never went.
But what is most interesting about this visit – though it is hard to guage without a Vatican communique – is the change of mood, and the fact that an atheist head of the European Parliament was so willing to visit the Pope. One informed source speaking on condition of anonymity told the Register there has so far been “absolutely no backlash” against Schulz for the meeting.
This is in contrast to his Christian predecessors, such as the socially and fiscally conservative German Hans-Gert Pöttering and the Polish Christian Democrat, Jerzy Buzek, who both received fierce criticism from militant anti-clerical secularists in the socialist and politically liberal groups within the European Parliament after meeting Benedict XVI.
The source also observed that “gone are the days when popes used to raise with European leaders issues such ensuring a mention of God appeared in the European Constitution or the contribution of Europe’s Christian heritage.” Time has healed those disputes, he said, and the issues have “moved on.”
Others, however, are not so sure, and fear that political correctness and an unwillingness among Christians to be humiliated again has taken over.
Speaking in a personal capacity, Benjamin Harnwell, founder of the Rome-based Dignitatis Humanae Institute, said: “The only reason that these days are gone is because Christians haven’t recovered yet from the humiliation of the last rejection, and don’t want to leap straight back into another drubbing from the militant secularists.”
Harnwell, who is also a former researcher in the European Parliament, further noted that in 2006 Schulz was so offended at German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s desire for a reference to Christianity in the EU Constitutional Treaty that he led the successful revolt against it.
There is also a strong sense among observers that Christians now lack either the courage or the confidence to promote, and to have fully recognized, Christianity’s historic contribution to European culture at the international treaty level. This has further led to an unwillingness to even broach the most difficult and grave concerns of the day, whether they be abortion, same-sex ‘marriage’ or euthanasia — all on the increase throughout Europe.
Some Vatican watchers contend this was seen in today’s meeting and say it was little more than a superficial attempt to show unity, a presumption of dialogue, but one that cannot refer — even implicitly — to those subjects where there is a significant lack of agreement.
Harnwell believes the EU Parliament chief has his eye on the European elections, which will take place next June. “The socialists don’t expect to do too well,” he said, adding that photographs of Schulz hosting the Pope in Strasbourg “might go down well with an otherwise hostile voter base.”
But on a personal level, Schulz clearly respects Pope Francis and, as an additional sign of his openness to dialogue with the Church, he brought his local parish priest with him as part of his delegation.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent
My take on Benedict XVI’s legacy in foreign relations in the journal Foreign Affairs.
His influence in foreign affairs — like that of all popes — has been considerable. As a truly global body with over a billion members, the world’s oldest diplomatic service, and a worldwide network of humanitarian aid organizations, the Catholic Church is arguably able to frame foreign policy in a way no other institution can.
That was perhaps most clearly evident during Pope John Paul II’s tenure, when the Vatican sided with the West in its struggle to topple Soviet communism. But the pope and the Holy See are not foreign policymakers as such — they can only guide world powers toward a particular vision of justice and peace.
To understand Benedict XVI’s approach to foreign affairs, it’s important to note his background as a professor. More at home with books than with the diplomatic corps (many of his recent predecessors had been trained statesmen), he primarily sought to bring the teachings of the Catholic Church to the world stage, rather than dwell on practicalities. It was an approach that in many ways proved to be an advantage: Unconstrained by the protocols of diplomacy, he could more forthrightly proclaim the Christian message to a global audience — and it bore fruit, although not without a cost.
His pronouncements, which often went right to the core of an issue, were regularly regarded as diplomatic gaffes. The most famous example occurred during his 2006 lectio magistralis at the University of Regensburg. In his speech, Benedict XVI memorably quoted a medieval emperor who implied that Muhammad had only spread Islam through violence. Although the lecture was primarily meant to show that contemporary militant Western liberalism and contemporary militant Islam share the same erroneous approach to truth, his quotation set off a firestorm, testing the Holy See’s relations with Islam-majority nations and forcing the pope to issue an apology for the reaction it caused.
And yet his comments struck a chord with many who began to debate in their own minds the problem of violence among certain Islamic groups, even if they were unwilling to articulate the issue publicly. His comments initiated deeper reflection among Muslim scholars on what it means to love God and love one’s neighbour, and they gave urgency to an ongoing Catholic-Muslim dialogue: No longer was it about mere niceties but more about genuine encounter. Specifically, it led Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to make an historic visit to the Vatican in 2007 and launch his own foundation aimed at improving interreligious understanding last year.
At the same time, Benedict worked hard to help foster peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Although he supported the recent UN General Assembly vote recognizing the state of Palestine, he was simultaneously able to improve relations between the Church and Israel by patiently persevering with bilateral discussions on settling the Fundamental Agreement — an incomplete 1993 accord that formed the basis of Holy See–Israel diplomatic relations — and by visiting the Holy Land in 2009. Israeli President Shimon Peres recently described Vatican-Israeli relations as “the best they have ever been.” Israeli and Jewish leaders would frequently remark that it was easier to deal with Benedict because “you knew where you stood with him.”
Under Benedict’s watch, the Holy See also established full diplomatic relations with Russia, Botswana, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Montenegro, and most recently, South Sudan — bringing the total of countries with formal ties to the Vatican to 180.
That is not to say that the Pope was able to accomplish all of his core goals — namely, to establish formal diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Saudi Arabia, China, and Vietnam.
Apart from the visit by Abdullah, there has been little progress in achieving religious freedom in the Arab kingdom, where churches are forbidden and priests must minister in secret, although the king has lightened the hand of the country’s dreaded religious police.
In China, the pope tried hard to improve the lives of Catholics. (Chinese Catholics loyal to Rome are forced to worship underground, and only the state church, the Patriotic Association, is officially recognized.) The pope, who made clear his desire to visit the communist nation, took the unusual step of writing a letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007 in which he urged Church unity and suggested ways to achieve it. Although the statement was received with enthusiasm by the nation’s faithful, it caused embarrassment to the Chinese authorities. Nearly six years on, diplomatic relations are little closer to being restored. Chinese Catholics loyal to Rome are still imprisoned and persecuted, and the Patriotic Church continues to consecrate “bishops” without Rome’s permission.
In Vietnam, where Catholics have long been persecuted by the communist regime, the pope has had more success. The Holy See recognized that the regime was amenable to reform, and thanks to extensive diplomatic efforts by the Holy See and the establishment of a joint working group in 2007, the communist nation has been more cooperative. It has allowed the Church to appoint bishops, and in 2011 the Vatican appointed its first envoy to the country — a step toward establishing full diplomatic relations.
Such successes, however, have not prevented criticisms of Holy See diplomacy, which, some say, has suffered in recent years. A number of Rome diplomats believe the Vatican is not as “focused” as it was just ten years ago and complain about poor lines of communication. Due to poor governance at the Vatican, they argue, the Church fails to transmit a unified international agenda. That is why, they say, many perceive the Catholic Church to be losing influence. “Either the pope is unaware of this and cannot get a hold of it, or he is aware and doesn’t care — and both are unacceptable,” a senior diplomat in Rome told me a couple of years ago.
And yet on a personal level, Benedict would consistently look for opportunities to voice his concerns on the international scene, always reminding a country’s citizens to make space for God and resist a growing tide of secularism. He surprised many by traveling far more than people expected, in the end making 24 trips outside Italy, including visits to Cameroon, the Holy Land, Lebanon, Turkey, the United States, and the United Kingdom. He viewed each papal trip as a pilgrimage, an opportunity to proclaim the faith and bolster the local churches. In turn, he strengthened relations between those countries and the Holy See.
That is just one approach to foreign relations that John Paul II and Benedict XVI held in common. “The two pontificates were marked by a striking continuity,” says George Weigel, a papal biographer, and the author of Evangelical Catholicism. “Both men had an acute sense of the discontents of twenty-first-century democracy and tried hard to shore up its crumbling moral-cultural foundations.”
According to Weigel, Benedict’s four September addresses — the speeches he delivered in Regensburg, Germany; Paris; New York; and Berlin — “rank with John Paul II’s two UN addresses as among the most important papal statements on contemporary world affairs.”
In light of the pope’s decision to step down, he clearly was aware of perceptions that the Church was drifting and did care enough to renounce the papacy and entrust it to someone younger and more able to govern. Besides, more than any particular diplomatic triumph, Benedict’s real legacy will be that he never missed an opportunity to teach the world lessons on how to achieve peace — and he did so with startling simplicity and clarity.
“Peace,” he told diplomats earlier this year, “is not simply the fruit of human effort but a participation in the very love of God. It is precisely man’s forgetfulness of God, and his failure to give him glory, which gives rise to violence.”
In the world of international diplomacy, it is teachings such as these that make the difference.
Waning strength of mind and body led to his decision, which the papal spokesman said reflected ‘great courage.’
By Edward Pentin
VATICAN CITY (12 Feb. 2013) — During the course of his nearly eight-year pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI has sometimes been labeled “the Pope of Surprises” on account of his academic brilliance and unpredictability, but few seriously imagined this.
News of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation — which was declared formally in a written statement dated Feb. 10 — filtered through the Italian news agency ANSA at around 10.30 a.m. Rome time Feb. 11 and was initially met with widespread disbelief, even by those closest to him.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi confirmed a couple of hours later during a packed and somber press conference that the Pope would indeed be leaving his ministry as Bishop of Rome and Successor of Peter at precisely 8 p.m. on Feb. 28. Benedict announced his decision to a Feb. 11 consistory of cardinals to rule on three canonizations.
Father Lombardi said his closest aides were left “incredulous,” but added that Holy Father showed “great courage” and “determination.” Speaking the day after the announcement, he said the Pope was “serene” after taking “a lucid and well formed decision.”
It’s thought that only his very close inner circle — notably his brother Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and the prefect of the Pontifical Household Archbishop Georg Gänswein — knew of the Pope’s decision to resign before the public announcement. Father Lombardi said it was an “absolutely personal” decision.
Such a resignation is unprecedented in modern times, with the last papal resignation being Pope Gregory XII in 1415. But it is in line with Canon 332 No. 2 of the Code of Canon Law, which states that if a Pope is to resign, “it is required for validity that he make the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone.”
In his statement, the Pope said that “after having repeatedly examined” his conscience before God, he had come to the “certainty” that his strengths, “due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”
He added: “I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.”
But he said in today’s world, “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of St. Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.” He noted that these had “deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
“For this reason,” he continued, “and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005.”
No Medical Diagnosis
No specific medical reasons were given: Father Lombardi said he knew of no particular medical complaint, only that he had noticed increasing frailty, although on Feb. 12 he disclosed that the Pope had had a new pacemaker fitted three months ago. He also denied there was any conscious attempt to make the announcement on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, which is also the Church’s World Day of the Sick.
The news prompted speculation about the reasons for his unexpected decision. However, those close to the Pope argue that his decision is very much in keeping with his character. Reluctant to be Pope — he once remarked that on learning of his election, he felt like a guillotine had come down on his neck — he went on to courageously embrace it. But it was no secret that as cardinal, he harbored dreams of retiring and spending time back in his native Bavaria writing books.
Moreover, as a man known for his humility and well aware of his strengths and weaknesses, he made it clear that he would consider resigning if the time were right. In his 2010 interview for the book Light of the World, Pope Benedict was asked if he would resign in view of the sexual abuse scandal.
“When the danger is great one must not run away,” he said. “For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign. Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the difficult situation. That is my view.”
But he added, “One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say that someone else should do it.”
Asked if he could imagine a situation in which he would consider a resignation by the Pope appropriate, he said he could, and that “if a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”
That time appears to have come.
Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, the Pope’s older brother, told reporters Feb. 11 that the Holy Father had been advised by his doctor not to take any more trans-Atlantic trips and had been considering stepping down for months. He added that he had been having difficulty walking and that his resignation was part of a “natural process.”
“His age is weighing on him,” he said. “At this age, my brother wants more rest.”
But a further sign that the Pope might resign was also apparent back in 2009. Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican was one of the few to draw attention to the significance of Benedict XVI visiting the resting place of Pope Celestine V. A holy Pope chosen reform the Church, Celestine pleaded with cardinals not to choose him, and struggled to rule the powerful cardinals around him. He resigned from the papacy in December 1294, five months after his election.
Elected at a time of great corruption and contention in the Church, after a long conclave, he assumed the See of Peter at the age of 80; Benedict XVI was 78 when elected in 2005.
Some observers therefore see it as unsurprising that Benedict XVI had an affinity with Celestine, and during his 2009 visit, made a significant gesture by leaving his own pallium — a sign of his episcopal authority and his connection to Christ — on the medieval Pope’s tomb.
During his pontificate, Benedict has venerated the relics of Celestine twice — but although such gestures did not go unnoticed at the time, few believed Benedict XVI would himself resign.
But the Holy Father’s retirement is likely to be less fraught than that of Celestine, who was held under house arrest by Pope Boniface VIII as his successor feared his opponents might use Celestine as a rallying point. Boniface also annulled all of Celestine’s official acts.
Father Lombardi said Pope Benedict plans to retire to a former cloistered monastery within the Vatican, but immediately after Feb. 28, he will be based at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. This is to allow renovations to the monastery to be completed, after which the former Pope will continue his theological studies.
The Vatican spokesman, speaking on Feb. 12, said the Pope’s expected encyclical on faith will not be published before the Pope steps down. He added that he did not know how close the document was to completion but when published, it will take a form other than an encyclical.
Tributes Pour In
Tributes to the Pope have been pouring in from around the world, beginning in the Curia.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals who will play a key role in overseeing the coming conclave, expressed his closeness, and that of all the cardinals, to Benedict XVI.
“We have heard you with a sense of loss and almost disbelief,” he said in a statement. “In your words we see the great affection that you have always had for God’s Holy Church, for this Church that you have loved so much.”
He recalled how the Holy Father “did not hesitate” to assume the responsibilities of being Pope when elected in 2005. “Although moved with emotion, to answer that you accepted, trusting in the Lord’s grace and the maternal intercession of Mary, Mother of the Church. Like Mary on that day she gave her ‘Yes’, and your luminous pontificate began, following in the wake of continuity, in that continuity with your 265 predecessors in the Chair of Peter, over 2,000 years of history from the Apostle Peter, the humble Galilean fisherman, to the great popes of the last century from St. Pius X to Blessed John Paul II.”
“We will still have many occasions to hear your paternal voice,” Cardinal Sodano continued. “Your mission, however, will continue. You have said that you will always be near us with your witness and your prayer. Of course, the stars always continue to shine and so will the star of your pontificate always shine among us. We are near to you, Holy Father, and we ask you to bless us.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the USCCB, issued a statement saying the Pope “brought a tender heart of a pastor, the incisive mind of a scholar and the confidence of a soul united with God in all he did.” Acknowledging sadness at the news, Cardinal Dolan said his resignation is “another sign of his great care for the Church.”
“Our experience impels us to thank God for the gift of Pope Benedict,” Cardinal Dolan said.
Tributes were forthcoming from outside the Catholic Church as well. Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, the recently elected leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, said it was with “a heavy heart but complete understanding” that Anglicans had learned of the Pope’s decision.
“As I prepare to take up office I speak not only for myself, and my predecessors as Archbishop, but for Anglicans around the world, in giving thanks to God for a priestly life utterly dedicated, in word and deed, in prayer and in costly service, to following Christ,” Archbishop Welby said in a message posted on his website. “He has laid before us something of the meaning of the Petrine ministry of building up the people of God to full maturity.”
President Barack Obama also released an official statement in response to the Pope’s announcement, remembering his 2009 visit with the pope and acknowledging the role of the Church in the U.S. and world.
Reaction among Romans was largely one of shock — drivers calling over passersby near the Vatican to check it was true, while others wondering if there were more reasons behind the resignation and that maybe he had been pushed out. Almost fittingly, a thunderstorm broke soon after the announcement and torrential rain poured down on Rome for the rest of the day.
The Coming Conclave
Attention has already started turning towards the coming conclave, although proceedings won’t begin until March 1.
Father Lombardi said no one knows the exact date of the papal election, but noted that obviously there will be no need to wait the normal eight days of novendali (mourning) after the death of the Pope.
“Thus, in two weeks, during the month of March, in time for Easter, we will have a new pope,” the papal spokesman said. “Benedict XVI will have no role in next March’s conclave, or in the running of the Church during the time between popes, the time of Sede Vacante (empty chair),” he added. “The Apostolic Constitution gives no role in this transition to a pope who resigns.” As of Feb. 12 it’s also not clear what title Benedict XVI with have once he steps down.
Many speculate that among the leading candidates to succeed Pope Benedict XVI are Cardinals Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, Angelo Bagnasco, archbishop of Genoa, Peter Turkson, a Ghanaian and president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Robert Sarah, a Guinean and president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, and Malcolm Ranjith, archbishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka.
From the United States, Cardinals Timothy Dolan, Raymond Burke, prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, and Daniel DiNardo, Archbishop of Houston-Galveston have been mentioned; however, in Church history it is considered less likely (though not impossible) for a candidate from a world superpower to be elected Pope.
Whoever is elected will find himself confronting a unique set of circumstances, and have to deal with the challenge of a previous, legitimately elected Pope still living.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
Many viewed it as strange that the U.S. and Nigerian governments had refused to label the militant Jihadist group Boko Haram a terrorist organisation. In this Dec. 2012 analysis a U.S. website on national security, I explain that the situation is more complex than it appears.
Despite an organized campaign of violence directed against Nigeria’s Christians, the Obama administration and the Nigerian government refuse to formally declare the militant Islamist group Boko Haram a terrorist organization. While this makes little sense given the body count from Boko Haram’s attacks, other factors are at play, as LIGNET explains.
According to Human Rights Watch, about 3,000 people have been killed in the sectarian conflict between Boko Haram and security forces since 2010. Over 815 have been killed in this year alone. Most of the victims have been Muslims or government officials, but increasingly they are Christians, too.
Religious strife has long divided Nigeria, and was a problem even before the country achieved independence from Britain, which ruled the territory as a colony until 1960. The religious divisions in Nigeria as also geographic, with the northern part of the country predominantly Muslim and the Southern part predominantly Christian. Each religion accounts for roughly half of Nigeria’s 160 million population.
Founded in 2002 by Muslim cleric Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram’s goal is to transform Nigeria into an Islamic state governed by Sharia law. It claims that the country’s secular government is godless and therefore illegitimate, and that it has an obligation to convert all Nigerians to the Islamic faith.
Boko Haram is Hausa (a tribal language common in northern Nigeria) for “Western education is forbidden”—a branding that places it squarely opposed to values that proclaim individual rights and religious toleration for all. The group also goes by the Arabic name “Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad,” which means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.”
Boko Haram’s militancy began in sporadic violence, mostly targeting the police and army. These attacks in turn led to reprisals against Boko Haram, which ratcheted the level of violence up even higher. While Islamist ideology has fueled the group’s violence, self-defense and revenge are explain its growing wrath, especially after 2005, when the Nigerian government cracked down on the group, and in many instances went outside the boundary of the law to do it.
Since then Boko Haram has expanded its target list, with brutal attacks against Christian civilians in the country’s north more common. In the latest savagery, a group of Islamist attackers went house to house in the predominantly Christian part of the village of Chibok on December 1, setting fires and slitting throats. Ten Christians were killed. Three militants likely affiliated with Boko Haram killed at least 19 Christians at a Bible study in central Nigeria on August 7. High profile Boko Harem attacks on Christians have grown over the last year and include horrific bombings of churches during Christmas and Easter Sunday services over the last year.
Informed observers in Nigeria have stressed to LIGNET that this is not a religious conflict as the media sometimes claims, but rather one fought along ethnic, political and regional lines and fueled by a desire to control the country’s oil (Nigeria is the sixth largest oil producer in the world). Oil “has everything to do with these attacks,” one source told LIGNET.
Before 1975, northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram operates, was very rich through agriculture, but oil brought instant wealth and investment in agriculture fell away. The country’s oil fields, all in the south, belong to the central government, so whoever is in charge has control over the nation’s oil and its distribution.
This has naturally led to power struggles and wealth disparities between the now impoverished north and the relatively prosperous south, further fanning the flames of conflict. Part of the problem also goes back to Nigeria’s colonial era when Britain paid little attention to the nation’s diversity, leading to a battle of internal integration and a civil war fought along predominantly ethnic and political lines in the 1960s. These were never religious conflicts, even though the north is mostly Muslim and the south Christian.
Despite Boko Haram’s increased use of violence in the last few years, the U.S. State Department has refused to add the Islamist militant group to its list of foreign terrorist organizations, even though it took a step in that direction in June when it named three of Boko Haram’s leaders “terrorists.” Nigeria’s government has also refused to label the group a terrorist organization.
Pressure, however, is mounting to change all of this. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and more than 20 American scholars urged earlier this year that Boko Haram be designated a terrorist outfit. And a new group has been formed called the Christian Association of Nigerian-Americans (CANAN) to raise awareness of what it calls the “pre-genocide” conditions in their ancestral homeland. CANAN has organized a petition to get 25,000 signatures by Dec. 29.
The campaign is said to have support from the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Homeland Security Department, as well as several U.S. Congressmen who have recommended FTO designation. Pat Meehan, a Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania, has said that he would be tabling a draft bill in Congress that will compel the State Department to explain its reasons if it refuses to give Boko Haram the FTO label.
The reluctance of the U.S. government to label Boko Haram a terrorist organization appears to reflect concerns that sanctions against the group could be counterproductive and affect oil exports to the United States.
LIGNET, however, has and will continue to refer to Boko Haram as a terrorist organization due to its indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including church bombings and suicide bombers.
U.S. “Foreign Terrorist Organization” (FTO) designation comes with the threat of sanctions, and makes it illegal for individuals or organizations to give material support or resources to the group.
While this seems like a no-brainer, Nigeria is one of the biggest suppliers of crude oil to the U.S. Relations between the two countries are complicated by what could be called “energy politics,” with various interests reluctant to take a step that Nigeria’s government itself has not taken.
Proponents of a cautious approach to the issue believe Boko Haram is a symbol more than anything else, a manifestation of the fragile relationship between the different ethnic and political groups wishing to exercise control over Nigeria and its resources. Religion is merely the tool for this fight, they say, and the glue that holds together fanatic adherents of the Islamic religion.
Opponent of U.S. FTO status believe this label would be a misplaced because, although the Boko Haram has engaged in attacks that clearly appear to be terrorism, labeling it a foreign terrorist group would distort the real reasons driving the violence in Nigeria.
Nigeria’s government opposes FTO designation for Boko Haram. It fears the label would put Nigeria back on the U.S. terror watch list—a move that could make life hard for all Nigerians, including Christians. It also is worried that the designation would erect an obstacle that could prevent a future peace agreement with Boko Haram.
Opponents, both inside and outside of Nigeria, also believe the FTO label could backfire, pouring gasoline onto a fire as it were by giving the group an excuse to expand its operations beyond the north, and attack targets not only in southern Nigeria, but even outside of the country.
These misgivings were on display recently in comments made by the Catholic archbishop of Abuja, Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan. In an interview last month, he stressed the importance of having a balanced attitude towards Boko Haram. He noted dialogue was not realistic at this time, but said he did not agree with those who brand the group “assassins.”
“These people cannot be defeated with guns alone,” he said, adding it is certainly not up to the Catholic Church or to Christians to organize their own militias. “We need to make it clear that no claims [of injustice] can justify the murder of innocent people, especially when they are praying.”
Despite levels of violence that equal or surpass that of other terrorist groups in the world, Boko Haram continues to escape official designation as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” by the U.S. government. This state of affairs will likely continue unless a clear link between al Qaeda and the group can be established or the group kills Americans.