Holocaust Remembrance, Rouhani, the EU, Rome and the Vatican

L'Opinione
Lisa Palmieri-Billig
February 9, 2016

 

Sometimes one needs to turn back the clock to when we were innocent, gullible children who took every word literally. Cinderalla was poor but good and beautiful and ended up marrying a prince while her evil stepsisters and stepmother suffered a punishing fate. Good was good and evil was evil, the lines were clear.

Growing into adulthood we learned that the world is not a place where good is necessarily rewarded nor evil punished. We became painfully aware of the frightening depths of evil to which humankind can sink, realizing that at every moment in different parts of the world humans are tortured, murdered, despised, and persecuted by other humans.

In growing up, we learned that to contribute to changing the world for the better, we must learn the art of Machiavellian diplomacy. "The ends justify the means" is an adage used by many, while of course a definition of "the means" varies widely and corresponds to the moral measuring rod used. No country, no leader even one with the highest moral ideals, can escape this mechanism. John Paul II once said he would meet even with the devil himself if he felt this would help bring about peace.

Apparently this adage has been applied to relations with Iran by Italy, the EU and even the Vatican. Bets have been placed on Iran as the one Islamic country that can bring peace and prosperity to the Mediterranean. In a strange, surrealistic vision of the ancient concept of "Realpolitik" pragmatism, Iran is now considered by many as capable of "contributing positively to regional and international security" (as proclaimed by the EU's High Representative for Foreign Policy, the Italian diplomat Federica Mogherini) while the Vatican maintains Iran can "play an important role together with other countries of the region, in promoting political solutions to the problems of the Middle East."

Just two days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Rome and the Vatican. After a 40 minute meeting with the Pope, Francis reportedly said to him, "It was a real pleasure, I hope for peace and wish you good work," and the Iranian President replied, "Pray for me." The official Vatican Press Release following Rouhani's meetings with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States (better known as the Vatican's "Foreign Minister") stated: "During the cordial discussions, common spiritual values emerged and reference was made to the good state of relations between the Holy See and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the life of the Church in the country and the action of the Holy See to favor the promotion of the dignity of the human person and religious freedom. Attention then turned to the conclusion and application of the Nuclear Accord and the important role that Iran is called upon to fulfill, along with other countries in the region, to promote suitable political solutions to the problems afflicting the Middle East, to counter the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking. In this respect, the parties highlighted the importance of interreligious dialogue and the responsibility of religious communities in promoting reconciliation, tolerance and peace."

While doubtlessly these words express genuine intentions of the highest order, their contrast with the present reality of Iran is ironically self-evident. Iran itself finances much of the wars and terrorism rampant in the Middle East and is held responsible for terrorist attacks in areas as far removed as Argentina when, 22 years ago on July 18,1994, the main Jewish community center in Buenos Aires exploded, causing 85 deaths. Iran expands its tentacles to Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and beyond through Hezbollah, the Iranian Pasdaran, etc. Its religious leaders have publicly exposed their credo of a rigid fundamentalist application of Shariah law, the subjugation and elimination of non-believers and -- not least – the "disappearance" of the Israeli State, reaffirmed only recently by Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Spiritual Guide of the Iranian Revolution. And right after the election of President Hassan Rouhani less than 3 years ago (known as Iran's "reformist" leader), Rouhani presided over a military parade in which a large banner calling for "Death to Israel" was displayed.

Iran has the world's highest percentage of death sentences per population -- 2,277 since President Rouhani came to power on June 14, 2013, steadily increasing each year with at least 980 executions in 2015, 22.5% more than the 800 of 2014 and 42.6% more than the 687 in 2013. The victims are ordinary men, women, and even children as well as homosexuals, "adulteresses," petty criminals, Bahais and followers of non-monotheistic faiths, atheists, or simply dissidents. They are whipped, hanged, stoned to death. "Even" is the name of Tehran's infamously famous jail of tortures. A common thread of cruelty runs through the "punishment" of all prisoners. Article 104 of Iran's Penal Code states, for example, that in cases of lapidation, "the stones must not be big enough to provoke death with only one or two hurls", so that the dying process may come more slowly and painfully.

But Iran also represents new wealth for hundreds of Italian business entrepreneurs, who flocked in droves to meetings with Rouhani and his economic operators, emerging with agreements amounting to hundreds of millions of euros. The fact that these new business accords will flourish hand in hand with continued, abysmal violations of human rights, does not disturb their blissful sleep.

The Holocaust, commemorated yesterday all over Europe has been termed as "the Absolute Evil": a period when Nazi ideology of "The Master Race" led its followers to unite in scientifically, brutally, "exterminating" six million of their fellow citizens and neighbors (including whole families – babies, parents and grandparents) defined as a "the Jewish race" – plus other human "categories" such as homosexuals, gypsies, the mentally and physically disabled, and of course civil and religious dissidents. They were sought out and dragged from their homes at dawn like rats, murdered and deported to work and die in abject slavery in insanely efficient factories of death called concentration camps.

Is there no schizophrenia involved in juxtaposing ceremonies of Holocaust remembrance that recall the indescribable suffering of millions of human beings and solemnly swearing "Never Again!", with the simultaneous courting of the leader of a country that holds an annual international competition for the best cartoon on Holocaust denial?

It would have better behooved Italian leaders to escort President Rouhani to a public commemoration of the Shoah, instead of escorting him on a touristic tour of the Colosseum, as they did.

Received with all honors by top Italian and Vatican government officials and the Pope himself, he was also shown extra courtesies that indicate a frightening and abject inclination by this country's leaders to relinquish their most sacred beliefs and liberties in exchange for economic benefits and Iran's doubtful and unproven negotiating powers for peace in the Mediterranean.

The naked statues, the masterpieces of sculpture that adorn the public halls and rooms where Rouhani was received, were hidden inside large white boxes specially built for the occasion, in order not to offend the eyes of an Islamic leader – some of whose more fanatic co-religionists by the way, have been savagely destroying inestimably precious historical treasures of the art and architecture of ancient cultures and religions of the Mediterranean.

Nor have Iran's nuclear ambitions been tamed, despite an international agreement aimed at transparency but not entirely without loopholes. Iran's regional aspirations for power are inevitably linked to economic and nuclear might and Iran's religious authorities have clearly spelled out their strategy and dream of achieving an Iranian Islamist empire in the Middle East and beyond.

We once believed in the optimism of Chamberlain; and we were blind and deaf to the words of "Mein Kampf." But according to the 20th century Spanish philosopher Georges Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Are we willing today to empower Iran with its expansionist ambitions to become our ally in "combatting terrorism" while we know that such terrorism is partially sponsored by Iran itself?

The child in us might well ask: How can we close our eyes to the evils perpetrated daily by this regime? How can the leader of a government with no respect for human rights and with a recognized strategy for obtaining regional power be chosen as an ally and mediator for peace and be trusted not to betray our own precious dreams of liberty and equality for all alike? Can an evil power be used to overthrow another evil power? Is this morally justified or even realistic?

Lisa Palmieri-Billig is AJC’s Representative in Italy and Liaison to the Holy See

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