Vatican City • Pope Francis’ diplomatic skills were put to the test Monday during his inaugural audience with a visiting head of state as he met with his political nemesis, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, and was asked to intervene in the dispute with Britain over the Falkland Islands.
It was a baptism by fire, given that the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires has been on record as saying Britain "usurped" the remote islands from Argentina and last year paid homage to the Argentines who were killed trying "to reclaim what is theirs for the fatherland."
Argentina and Britain fought a 1982 war over the islands, which Argentina calls Malvinas. Earlier this month, the islanders voted overwhelmingly to remain a British Overseas Territory.
There was no indication that Francis, now pope, would take up the request from Fernandez, with whom he has clashed for years over her populist policies on gay marriage and other hot-button issues like birth control that will soon confront Francis on a global scale as leader of the world’s 1.2-billion Catholics.
Francis may well map out some of his own priorities in his installation Mass on Tuesday, which some 130 government delegations and scores of Jewish, Orthodox and other Christian representatives will attend. Italian news reports say civil protection officials are gearing up for as many as 1 million people to flock to the event.
There was no immediate comment from the Vatican as to whether the Argentine-born Francis would accept Fernandez’s intervention request, which was made during a meeting and luncheon at the Vatican hotel where Francis has been staying since his election last week.
The British Foreign Office, however, made clear it didn’t expect any Vatican intervention in the dispute.
"The Holy See is clear that it considers the question of the Falkland Islands as a bilateral one between sovereign nations, and that it does not have a role to play. We do not expect that position to change," it said in a statement.
Francis and Fernandez are longtime rivals: As leader of Argentina’s Catholics, he had accused her populist government of demagoguery, while she called his opposition to gay adoptions reminiscent of the Middle Ages and the Inquisition. But where the Falklands are concerned, Francis, like most Argentines, believes the islands rightfully belong to Argentina.
Fernandez told journalists Monday after having lunch with the pope that she had asked for Francis’ intercession to "facilitate dialogue" with Britain over the islands.
Just last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he didn’t agree with Francis’ views on the Falklands. And on Monday, the Foreign Office recalled the referendum results in its statement, saying: the vote "sent a clear message around the world that the people of the islands want to remain as a British Overseas Territory."
In asking Francis to intervene, Fernandez said she recalled how Pope John Paul II averted war in 1978 between Argentina and Chile over three tiny islands in the Beagle Channel at the southern tip of South America.
With military governments on both sides poised for battle, he sent his personal envoy to mediate the crisis through shuttle diplomacy between Santiago and Buenos Aires, and eventually brought both governments to the Vatican to consider his compromise.
The conflict wasn’t entirely resolved until after democracy returned to Argentina, and both sides signed a "treaty of peace and friendship" at the Vatican in 1984, giving the islands to Chile but maritime rights to Argentina.
On Monday, Fernandez gave Francis a picture of a marble monument honoring the 30th anniversary of John Paul II’s negotiations, and then used the opportunity to bring up the issue of sovereignty over the Falklands.
They also seemed to have patched up their relationship.
Fernandez gave the new pope a mate gourd and straw, to hold the traditional Argentine tea that Francis loves, and he gave her a kiss.
"Never in my life has a pope kissed me!" Fernandez said afterward.
She and her predecessor and late husband, Nestor Kirchner, had defied church teaching to push through a series of measures with popular backing in Argentina, including mandatory sex education in schools, free distribution of contraceptives in public hospitals, and the right for transsexuals to change their official identities on demand. Argentina in 2010 became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriages.
According to Francis’ authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was politically wise enough to know the church couldn’t win a straight-on fight against gay marriage, so he urged his bishops to lobby for gay civil unions instead. It wasn’t until his proposal was shot down by the bishops’ conference that he declared what gay activists called a "war of God" on the measure — and the church lost the issue altogether.
As the meeting was under way Monday, the Vatican released details of Francis’ installation Mass, saying it would be a simplified version of the 2005 installation Mass that brought Pope Benedict XVI to the papacy, with only a half-dozen cardinals pledging their obedience to him and many gestures to Eastern rite Catholics and Orthodox Christians in a sign of church unity.Next Page >
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