Op Ed, National Review (Today)
April 07, 2005, 11:44 a.m.
The Pope of Freedom
A life-saving message.
was October 1978, during the Lebanon war. Syrian artillery pounded the
free enclave of my motherland: Dozens of civilians were killed every day.
As a law student, I wondered when and if this injustice would stop — and
who could end it? Our country had been invaded by the Baath of Syria, one
of the fiercest allies of the Soviet. In order to crush the local
resistance, thousands of tons of artillery shells were crashing on
civilian neighborhoods, a scene reminiscent in my mind then of the Warsaw
siege of 1944. We hid in shelters listening to the radio, hoping for an
end to the bombardments, but we could foresee no international
intervention. Suddenly, on October 16, the radio announced that a new pope
had been elected to replace the previous pontiff who died only weeks into
his tenure. We were surprised: He was the first non-Roman head of the
Catholic Church in centuries, and he was Polish. I instantly connected the
Warsaw siege; there was no doubt in my mind that something would change.
And indeed, many things did, starting in my besieged neighborhood: The
Syrian cannons stopped their relentless bombardment, saving thousands from
annihilation. Later, I learned from diplomatic sources that one of the
main reasons Syria stopped was because Pope John Paul II, only days into
his papacy, firmly spoke in behalf of the voiceless. He had identified, we
were told, with the encircled families. Many other besieged people like
mine probably owe him their lives.
After that, I followed the pope’s trajectory in world affairs and
witnessed his drive for freedom, particularly with the nations living
under the Communist yoke. He called for citizens to speak without fear,
and he thus emboldened many leaders and intellectuals who chose the truth
over safety. Lech Walesa of Poland, Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia, Andrei
Amalrik of Russia. Since his election, Rome had a bright new light of
liberty guiding the Roman Curia’s diplomacy. Opposing injustice and
oppression was never an easy path, but more men and women began to write
and speak up with the Polish cardinal as head of the Vatican.
His moral influence was historic, but it was not limited to Europe, and it
was not limited by the fall of Communism. With the end of the Cold War,
the pope only redoubled his efforts: He sought to overcome the suffering
inherited from the past and to bring hope to future generations. He
visited the weak and the oppressed. He spoke directly to people living in
fear: Cuba, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, among others. Millions came to pray and
listen, and many more millions followed his journeys around the world.
Covering thousands of miles across the continents, he fostered a stream of
hope for generations to come. Endless rows of boys and girls from all
nationalities, chanting and dancing, met him in concerts around the globe,
from Denver to Calcutta. They yearned for peace and hope, and he quenched
their thirst with kindness and prayer. His love for the young, the
younger, and the hopeless brings to mind words spoken in Aramaic by a
Semitic man, who died some 2,000 years ago, and whose name we know well.
John Paul II, the Pope of Freedom, is finally at rest. But his message is
— Walid Phares is the Secretary General of the World Lebanese Cultural
Union in Washington. He is a professor of religion and world politics at
Florida Atlantic University, and author of World Christianity, where