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The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
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More than 900 years ago, in November 1095, Pope Urban II launched a call to arms to Christians to join a holy war, promising that whoever, for devotion alone and not for honour or money, went to liberate Jerusalem and the holy places from the Muslims would receive a plenary indulgence. The First Crusade was successful in its primary aim, but as the city’s Muslims and Jews were massacred by the victorious Crusaders once they retook Jerusalem in 1099, the consequences resonate to this day.
In a contemporary approach to the problems of the Holy Land, Pope Urban’s linear successor to the See of Rome has launched a reverse call – not to arms but to prayer, contemplation and brainstorming – by inviting an eminent group to a workshop in Rome to consider the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. The group will convene on Monday with the primary aim of achieving a ceasefire so that humanitarian aid can be delivered; it will also consider how to end the persecution of Christians in the country.
The Pontifical Academy of Sciences has invited experts from the United States, Russia and the Middle East, including Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Tony Blair has also been invited, presumably on the basis of his role as an international negotiator for the Quartet, the group comprising the United Nations, the European Union, the US and Russia set up in 2002 to help mediate Middle East peace negotiations.
More than any Pope in recent times, Francis seems determined to play an active part in trying to resolve some of the world’s worst conflicts (despite the papacy not having any divisions, as Stalin famously said to the French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval in 1935). The violence is clearly preying on his mind constantly. In his New Year message, departing from his prepared text, he lamented the many conflicts raging in the world in heartfelt terms. “What is happening in the heart of man? What is happening in the heart of humanity? … I, too, believe that it will be good for us to stop ourselves in this path of violence and search for peace.” But it will take something close to a biblical miracle to see an early end to the conflict in Syria.
Through its timing, the Pope’s workshop will hope to influence the Geneva conference convened by the international community and due to begin on 22 January. The talks, called Geneva 2, are a follow-up to the meeting in June 2012 at which international parties set out a peace plan calling for a transitional government. Although Geneva 1 left open the question of whether President Bashar al-Assad would have to leave office, the US and UK Governments were adamant that he could play no role in the future of Syria.
This Manichaean approach has become more nuanced of late as it has become clear that not only are the Assad government forces (bolstered by troops from Lebanon’s Shia militia, Hezbollah) more than holding their own, but also that the effective military arm of the opposition is now dominated by jihadists with greater or lesser links to al-Qaeda.
To portray Assad as the lesser now of two evils risks underplaying the horrendous violence which he has visited on his own people, whether by indiscriminate bombing, shelling or (probably) gassing. Yet he has cleverly turned the tables on his Western critics by agreeing to destroy his chemical weapons stock. A UN-related mission announced that a 31 December deadline for removing important chemicals from the country had been missed but, overall, it was making “important progress” in eliminating chemical weapons in Syria.
Assad has also expressed his willingness to attend the Geneva 2 talks, reiterated in a message to Pope Francis two weeks ago. In it, the first he has sent directly to the Pope, he stressed the Syrian Government’s readiness to participate in Geneva 2 while highlighting the need “to combat the terrorism that targets citizens as a decisive factor in making any peaceful solution to the crisis a success”.
All of which is not very coded language: the West with its Gulf allies and Turkey should stop facilitating the supply of arms to al-Qaeda-linked rebels and the entry into Syria of Sunni jihadists from around the world (including Britain) as the opposition are largely now Sunni Islamist fanatics bent on imposing sharia law. Assad is thus making a semi-credible case to the leader of the world’s Catholics that he is the sole protector of the remaining Christians in Syria.
Realistically, there is no prospect of a political solution at the Geneva 2 talks: the most powerful military elements of the opposition, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) affiliated to al-Qaeda, and the more nationalist al-Nusra Front, are most unlikely even to turn up. In fact, they have been fighting each other in recent days near Aleppo and the Turkish border as the foreign-led Iraqi ISIS forces have ceded ground to the Syrian-led Islamist groups, the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. (ISIS has, in any case, other fish to fry, having seized control of the city of Fallujah from the Baghdad Government.) The civil war is therefore set to continue until one side, probably the Assad regime, wins or both sides tacitly agree to a de facto partition of the country.
So without any realistic prospect of an early negotiated settlement, what can the Pope’s workshop achieve? The challenge will be for it to come up with concrete measures to help both refugees and the beleaguered members of the civilian population still left in Syria.
One idea, which might inspire others, involves a very different kind of workshop, something which is helping a small number of the two million Syrian refugees, half a million of them now in Jordan. The idea has been to stage one of the Greek tragedies as a therapeutic drama-workshop, a production of Euripides’ great anti-war tragedy, The Trojan Women, with an amateur cast of Syrian refugee women playing at a theatre in Jordan. The parallels with modern Syria are far from exact but in Euripides’ play the eponymous women are all refugees, widowed by the Trojan War and, in the end, sold into slavery or to be killed or to see their children killed. The contemporary version has been an outstanding success.
The hope is that this will lead to a longer-term programme of drama-therapy workshops which would help focus world attention on the Syrian refugee crisis. As Charlotte Eagar, one of those behind the project, explains: “Drama therapy is widely respected by psychologists as a way to work through the trauma and depression that refugees can suffer.”
Clearly, this would have to be replicated many times over to have any kind of significant impact. But if it sets off similar ideas, it will have played a disproportionately valuable role. It may not answer the Pope’s question about what is happening to the heart of humanity, but it may help the refugees to come to terms with the psychological damage they are suffering. The Pope’s workshop has a noble aim: it now needs a concrete, practical outcome.
Sir Ivor Roberts is president of Trinity College, Oxford, and a former British ambassador to Italy, Ireland and Yugoslavia.