Pope Francis, A Shrewd Political Leader Comes To Washington

Depending on his audience, the pontiff's messages vary. On a historic visit to the U.S., President Obama and the whole world will be listening carefully.

Pope Francis makes you think.
Pope Francis makes you think.
Andrej Mrevlje

NEW YORK â€" There is something very special about the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church traveling abroad. Especially when the white-clad holy figure comes to visit the United States, the country of evil. At least, that's how America is seen in the eyes of very conservative Catholics and growing numbers of the non-American left. And that's what the pope himself calls capitalism â€" dung of the devil!

This contrast of opposite notions become material when "the Good" Pope Francis steps on American soil and is greeted by President Barack Obama, the representative of "evil." The American writer Timothy Egan also draws this dichotomy between Pope Francis and Donald Trump, the quintessential American evil, in his piece, The Anti-Trump Cometh. "In a few weeks, Pope Francis will visit our fair land, a fitting pivot from the Summer of Trump, closing out a gluttonous episode of narcissism, rudeness, frivolity and xenophobia," Egan writes. "For all that the orangutan-haired vulgarian has done to elevate the worst human traits a public figure can have, Francis is the anti-Trump. He has more power, media magnetism and authenticity in his lone functioning lung than Donald Trump has in his entire empire of ego."

This is it. Trump's ego will fry in a pile of wood, because the pope's ratings are â€" according to Pew â€" three times higher than his.

Egan's writing is very entertaining, but it nevertheless blends with the efforts of other writers to ascribe to Francis qualities, political goals or ambitions that he doesn't have. I myself got caught up in this game when I tried to figure out the enigmatic, yet very popular pope's personality in a Yonder post a few months ago.

But then, over the last few months, the pope's popularity has grown even faster, penetrating almost all stratums of modern society. So after his visit to Latin America, Pope Francis now has the titles of environmentalist, revolutionary and protector of the poor. In the present world crisis of political leadership, entire countries â€" even their leaders â€" are projecting their hopes onto the pope, who, it seems, has yet to make a wrong move.

We saw something similar in 2009, when the newly elected Obama set hopes high for many nations of the world. Not as a messiah, not as spiritual leader like the pope, but as the singularly charismatic and smart leader who had all the qualities to lead the world into more stable times.

Back then, Europeans hoped that with Obama, the United States would miraculously become a land of peace and prosperity that would radiate light on the rest of the world. But what Europe and others forgot was that the U.S. is a superpower with its own needs, obligations and constraints.

After Obama

As we know, America stagnated and European hopes went unanswered. Now we are about to watch the leader of the smallest country on the planet visiting the U.S. in the role of exorcist of deviant, shortsighted and extremely conservative American politics, which will otherwise push the country further towards the edge of disaster.

It is true that the pope believes strongly in the existence of the devil, but he is not an exorcist. And my intention is not to ignore or deny his spiritual and pastoral role as the head of an enormous flock of Christians. But let’s say it: Pope Francis is also a shrewd politician.

With his modest behavior and simple lifestyle, he sets an example we haven't seen since Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a nun of Albanian descent who devoted her entire life to helping the poor, sick and abandoned children in India. The pope's acts are a constant challenge to the established financial and economic order, and his gestures take us out of our own individual comfort zones. He's gained admiration for this, prompting attention and applause from the entire world.

His seemingly honest and humble approach has given him those "divisions" that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin once sarcastically asked the Vatican about. Francis is now leader of the 99%, and moved to the forefront of the climate change movement. In the absence of other influential leaders, he stands at the head of the global social movement.

His popularity is different from the sort that John Paul II enjoyed. He, too, gathered huge crowds, but life was different back then, and the world was one big party, unaware of the looming crisis. And while John Paul II touched people's hearts, Francis is getting into people's minds with clear-cut political statements. In my mind, Francis is just about to start cashing in on his popularity.

The traces of a campaign for new evangelization could be found in his recent Latin American tour, and Tim Rogers mentions similarities to other world politicians in his Fusion dispatch. Reporting on the pope's use of different language for different audiences, Rogers writes, "The pope tailoring his message to different audiences isn't opportunistic. It's shrewd. As the leader of an institution that has been criticized as distant, rigid and stale, Pope Francis is showing that he knows his audience and can connect with them. And in doing so, he appears to be breathing new life and energy into the church in Latin America. And that's one of the main reasons he got the job."

It works. We no longer discuss sexual abuse of children by priests. What ever happened to that?

Francis is an adventurous freedom fighter in this outdated world where so many things neatly line up in certain camps. He doesn't recognize the East-West divide. "If anything, he may be a "southerner," in terms of those world categories," Massimo Franco wrote in the Globalist. "For sure, he is a man without any sympathy for borders and divisions."

Italian writer Franco is the author of several books, including Parallel Empires, one of the few books on the history of the Vatican-United States relationship. He claims that one of the key aims of Pope Francis is to spread religious freedom all over the Spanish-speaking Americas. And when it comes to Washington, let's not forget the importance of this pope in sealing the Cuba deal, and that it's on the White House to repay the favor. Politically speaking, Francis has no limits and sees no obstacles to obtaining his goals.

Political positioning

That much is obvious from the Holy See's reaction to the crises in Syria and Ukraine. The pope took an assertive stance to the former, and a much more cautious approach to the latter. But both approaches have the same goal â€" to avoid a new Cold War between the United States and Russia. This means that he's trying to bring Vladimir Putin back to the negotiation table.

The Holy See's relations with Obama and President Putin are the consequences of the Vatian's shift in foreign policy priorities. These are things that will be discussed during the pope's visit to the White House and during his speech to Congress. But when he talks to the 78 million American Catholics, you may hear Pope Francis make some pretty liberal statements hinting at changes in Catholic Church.

Whenever Francis talks about issues such as homosexuality, marriage of priests, abortion and contraception, it's always a question of emphasis; it is a different use of language, but not a change of doctrine, as Franco said in a recent interview. To accept these kinds of changes, this popular pope will have to win over the hostile forces at home, in the Vatican.

Unfortunately, some time ago Pope Francis said, "I don't have much time left." The Argentine pontiff, born with the name Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is 78 years old. It's not clear whether he was thinking of his age or the fact that he might not control the Vatican for much longer.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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