Pope Francis And Barack Obama, Why The White House Believes

On the eve of the pontiff’s visit to the United States, confidential Obama administration documents reveal a remarkable harmony with Francis’ objectives.

During Obama's visit last year to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis
During Obama's visit last year to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis
Paolo Mastrolilli

NEW YORK â€" When preparing for President Barack Obama’s first meeting with Pope Francis last March in the Vatican, White House and State Department staff made a prediction. “Pope Francis' diplomatic legacy is still being built, but the ‘pastoral conversion’ which is the hallmark of his pontificate is taking shape in important ways. The pope’s grip on the world stage means that his pastoral actions will have widespread political implications,” the document reads.

These words are among the sensitive and confidential documents obtained by La Stampa that help to understand the growing alliance between the United States and the Holy See, one that Washington hopes to consolidate when Francis arrives on Sept. 22 for his first visit as pope.

Common themes

The reports were compiled to provide Obama with an overview on the pope himself and the structure of the Vatican and then elaborate on several areas of common interest and potential collaboration, including the fight against poverty and hunger, climate change, the war in Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, relations with Cuba and human trafficking.

The document also touches on the fight against poverty and income inequality, noting that since Pope Francis' election in March 2013, he has attracted the world’s attention with his unique style of leadership, clear humanity and empathy and devotion to the poor. While strengthening the Church’s traditional teaching, he has clarified that attention given to controversial social issues like abortion and gay marriage should not overshadow other pastoral duties, such as looking after the poor, the ill and the needy.

The grounds for further cooperation lie with a pope who has changed his priorities, placing “life issues” at least on the same level of importance as other social issues that also concern the White House. On that note, the report recalls Evangelii gaudium, Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation that calls for the “elimination of the structural causes of poverty," and denounces "a financial system which rules rather than serves.”

The Pope shows his popular touch in Brazil â€" Photo: George Martell/Pilot New Media

Obama’s counselors note that “some observers saw this exhortation as a challenge to the excesses of capitalism,” but dismiss the accusations of Marxism it has attracted, emphasizing that Francis' views on the economy are "rooted in thousands of years of Catholic doctrine. Human well-being is determined by moral choices, and the Church must always focus on defending the poor.” This focus on "human dignity”, the report adds, is common Catholic vernacular, but by setting a personal example, Francis touches the issue in "striking" ways.

On the environment

The White House documents note that the Vatican sees protecting the environment as a “moral duty” and express high hopes for the pope’s new encyclical on the environment, which was bitterly criticized by conservatives in the U.S. The Holy See considers issues of political economy and the environment to be strongly linked, and the next apostolic exhortation will draw attention to this connection. The Vatican publicly recognized the serious and potentially irreversible effects of global warming.

On Syria, Obama’s staff support an approach of helping people escape extremism. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they advocate “direct negotiations" toward a two-state solution. When Secretary of State John Kerry â€" himself, a Catholic â€" conducted months of determined negotiations, Pope Francis spoke in support of the United States’ efforts to restart a dialogue on various occasions.

From Havana to Rome

The U.S. document obtained by La Stampa relating to Cuba offers a glimpse of what were then secret negotiations to restore diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington, with the Vatican ultimately playing a key role as mediator. “We respect the Vatican’s point of view regarding the economic sanctions the U.S. has imposed on Cuba but we note that despite these sanctions, the U.S. is one of the island’s main trade partners. We are Cuba’s first or second source of food imports every year.”

But Washington remained firm that rather than the embargo, the roots of Cuba’s difficulties lie in the politics and actions of its government. On this basis, the Vatican would subsequently host secret talks in Rome that led to the historic reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the two neighbors.

Raul Castro and Obama in Panama City in April â€" Photo: Estudio Revolucion/Xinhua/ZUMA

The convergence between Washington and the Vatican is very strong in other issues as well, including initiatives against hunger, the fight against human trafficking â€" a form of modern slavery that has exploded during the migration phenomenon â€" and the persecution of religious minorities.

Washington notes how Francis has managed to capture the attention of Catholics and non-Catholics alike around the world. "In situations of conflict, he will continue to be a voice for reconciliation. Concern over the persecution of Christians will push the Church towards pragmatic policies," the document reads. "Where religious freedom is restricted, as it is in China, Francis will seek pastoral opportunities to reach out to faithful, avoiding clashes.”

There will be plenty to discuss next week in Washington, and even before Francis and Obama shake hands there is plenty to agree on.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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