A vile demonstration in the pope's presence

Posted: Tuesday, May 08, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

Syrian President Bashar Assad on Saturday offered a vivid, if vile, demonstration of why he and his government are unworthy of respect or good relations with the United States or any other democratic country.

Greeting Pope John Paul II in Damascus, Mr. Assad launched an attack on Jews that may rank as the most ignorant and crude speech delivered before the pope in his two decades of travel around the world. Comparing the suffering of the Palestinians to that of Jesus Christ, Mr. Assad said that the Jews "tried to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the Prophet Muhammad." With that libel, the Syrian president stained both his country and the pope, who so far has failed to adequately respond. ...

John Paul's decision to visit Syria and to become the first pontiff to visit a mosque offered Mr. Assad a remarkable opportunity. The former ophthalmologist has been struggling to establish himself as a credible leader both in and outside of Syria, and could have drawn on the pope's enormous prestige by welcoming his latest attempt to reach out to another faith. But Mr. Assad seems to have little understanding of the world outside Damascus, or how he can productively relate to it. Since taking office, he has abandoned his father's uneven efforts to reach out to Israel and the West and instead taken a series of militant and provocative steps, ranging from increased support for the Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon to the illegal export of hundreds of millions of dollars of Iraqi oil through a Syrian pipeline. At an Arab conference in March he proposed the reinstitution of a boycott against Israel, saying the Israelis were "worse than the Nazis." The Arab leaders wisely ignored his proposal, while his rhetoric drew widespread condemnation.

Having evidently learned nothing from that episode, Mr. Assad sought Saturday to recruit the pope and the Catholic Church for his war against Jews. Vatican officials maintained that the pope did not have prior notice of Mr. Assad's medieval appeal, and the pontiff's own words implicitly rejected it. But the Vatican's response to Mr. Assad was shockingly blase, considering the effort John Paul has made to repudiate the church's own history of anti-Semitism. ...

What is clear is that Mr. Assad converted a visit meant to symbolize tolerance and reconciliation into a display of obtuseness by the Vatican in the face of religious ignorance and hatred. During the past decade the United States engaged diplomatically with Mr. Assad's father, gaining his support in the Persian Gulf War and drawing him into the Middle East peace process. Despite the totalitarian nature of his regime and its sponsorship of terrorism, Hafez Assad seemed to understand that peace with Israel and engagement with the West offered the only way forward for his country. His son clearly does not and should be treated accordingly.

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