Pope John Paul II and the Arab Spring

Commentary | April 28, 2011


If he were still alive, John Paul would view the current upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East with hope.

Critics of John Paul II's beatification this Sunday say it's both too hasty and just plain wrong. Too hasty because his successor, Benedict XVI, waived the customary five-year waiting period and started the beatification process right after his death in 2005. Just plain wrong because of the wave of allegations about cover-ups of clerical sex abuse during his tenure.

Whatever the merits of those arguments, there's a completely different reason to welcome the Polish pope's beatification at this particular moment: It fittingly coincides with the Arab Spring, and his pontificate offers valuable lessons for those yearning to be free from oppression. John Paul has been hailed for his role in toppling communist regimes. But he deserves just as much recognition for demonstrating that the push for a more representative political system is fully compatible with a deep commitment to core religious beliefs—so long as it includes full respect for differing faiths. Across the Arab world this respect is all too often absent.

In the early 1980s, I was based in Rome for Newsweek and traveled with John Paul on his whirlwind pilgrimages. Proximity bred deep admiration for his conviction that, as he put it, "There is a moral logic that is built into human life." His repeated appeals to his countrymen and others to live by their moral convictions were a driving force of the peaceful revolutions of 1989, inspiring dissidents to live "as if" they were free. This meant decrying injustice, refusing to acquiesce in the pretences of "socialist democracy," and demanding real democracy instead.

But equally impressive was his understanding of different cultures, religions and traditions. Above all he believed in freedom of conscience—for his fellow Poles when the communist authorities were trying to block the building of churches, and for persecuted religious communities anywhere. He in no way saw this as contradicting his strict constructionist interpretation of his own faith, and he refused to cede ground to those Catholics who wanted more elastic beliefs to live by.
John Paul convened leaders of many religions wherever he went, urging not just tolerance but genuine reconciliation. He fiercely condemned anti-Semitism, and he was the first pope to visit a synagogue and Jerusalem's Wailing Wall. He also defended the right of Muslims to practice their faith freely in Western societies, making an equally historic first papal visit to a functioning mosque during a Syria trip.

But he emphasized that tolerance and understanding work both ways. If Western societies should respect the rights of Muslims to practice their faith, he argued, Islamic countries need to respect the rights of Christians to do the same—even countries like Saudi Arabia. And no one, he emphasized, can ever be justified in invoking their religion as justification for murdering those of other faiths. After 9/11, he encouraged the representatives of a broad range of faiths who gathered for the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi to condemn any violence in the name of religion.

In big ways and small, John Paul lived the doctrine of inclusiveness that he preached. During the long journeys to Asia, Latin America or Africa, he would sometimes show up in the economy-class section of the papal plane where our highly international press contingent was sitting. On those occasions, the journalists would toss him questions in a variety of languages. Almost always, he replied in whatever language the questioner used. This was an impressive display of his formidable linguistic skills, but it was also living proof of his commitment to breaking down national and cultural barriers.

If he were still alive, John Paul would view the current upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East with hope. He would applaud the courage and ingenuity of Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Syrians and others in employing new tools, especially the social media, in their drive for liberation. During the struggle for freedom in Poland, activists used the available technologies of that era—everything from illicit printing presses to videotapes—in the same way.

But he would also be concerned by the violence of the regimes that are hanging on to power at all costs, and he'd be wary of some of those who are leading the charge against them. In particular, he'd warn against replacing secular dictatorships with religious dictatorships.

Violence, John Paul wrote, is a product of the denial of the humanity of "the other"—anyone who believes something different. His beatification provides a timely reminder.

Mr. Nagorski is vice president and director of public policy at the EastWest Institute.

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