The Pope's shameful war crimes

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The Independent Online
In a short trip to Italy last month, after looking at my favourite Roman monuments, I finally got round to visiting the Vatican. I know that visitors to St Peter's are supposed to enthuse about Michelangelo's soaring cupola and the magnificent canopy of gilded bronze, designed by Bernini, which houses the papal altar. But as I stood in the nave, surrounded by gleaming marble and gold, I felt my flesh creep. I thought about the Inquisition and the persecution of so-called heretics, one of whom - the philosopher Giordano Bruno - is commemorated by a darkly brooding statue on the spot where he was burnt to death in Campo de' Fiori, just across the Tiber. And I thought about all the women who have died in botched abortions, or from repeated pregnancies, because of the church's implacable opposition to contraception and abortion.

Now, only a month later, the Vatican has once again revealed its misogyny - and, incidentally, its medical ignorance - in a series of statements about the treatment of rape victims from Kosovo. On this occasion, various Catholic authorities have attacked the use of the morning-after pill, which is effective for up to 72 hours after sex has taken place. Displaying a staggering lack of compassion for women who have been gang-raped by Serbian soldiers, a Vatican spokeswoman said that "the day-after pill is not permitted by Catholic morality because it is abortive. A murder does not become less grave because of the circumstances in which it takes place".

It is a perplexing form of morality that condemns traumatised women, who are already the victims of war crimes, to the further torment of bearing their rapists' children. As it happens, the morning-after pill is not even an abortifacient; it prevents implantation of a fertilised egg and cannot be compared with surgical abortion. To equate its use in these desperate circumstances with murder is breathtaking, yet the thinking behind it - that women are weak, irresponsible and cannot be trusted to make decisions about their own bodies - is in line with Catholic teaching down the ages.

I have often remarked in this column on the horrors perpetrated against women by Muslim fundamentalists in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. We have become accustomed, in the West, to hearing the smug observation that Islam is still going through an authoritarian phase which our own churches got out of their systems in the Middle Ages. Yet the Pope's recent behaviour is a salutary reminder that this complacency is not remotely justified. The Vatican may have given up torture but it is happy to turn a blind eye when it is carried out by Catholic politicians; John Paul II not only visited Augusto Pinochet in Santiago when the Chilean torturer was still in power, but intervened on his behalf with the British government when he was finally apprehended.

But it is the question of women that reveals the Catholic church in its true colours. There is something profoundly disgusting about the spectacle of a spiritual leader attempting to deny raped women medication that might relieve their plight. Who is to look after the infants that would result from the Pope's strictures, or the women whose babies have been fathered by men who murdered their families before their eyes? Even to suggest such a thing is a gross violation of human rights, yet we are so used to similar papal announcements that we do not realise their significance. When it comes to medieval attitudes, there is very little to choose between the Pope and the Taliban militia.

TEN DAYS into the Nato bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, I suggested that reliance on air power alone ran the risk of handing political and military victory to Slobodan Milosevic. I suspected at the time that Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were delaying sending in ground troops in the hope that the Serb leadership would lose its nerve; it did not occur to me that they would have started the bombardment without a fall-back plan if Mr Milosevic failed to co-operate. After more than eight weeks of bombing and 1,200 civilian deaths, the absence of an alternative has become painfully obvious. Mr Blair and Mr Clinton give the impression that they do not know what to do next, and I am beginning to think that opponents of the air war were too kind when they called it criminal. The proper word for the enterprise, and the people who thought it up, is stupid.