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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 — 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."

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The Pope shows his popular touch in Brazil — 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 — himself, a Catholic — 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.

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Raul Castro and Obama in Panama City in April — 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 — a form of modern slavery that has exploded during the migration phenomenon — 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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Longyearbyen Postcard: World's Northernmost Town Must Face Climate Change — And Russia

The melting of the sea ice in the Far North has accelerated in recent years. The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has become the focal point of the environmental drama gripping the Arctic as well as the geopolitical tensions it is causing there, with Russia in particular.

A statue of a coal miner stands in the center of the photos with houses surronding it, draped around their shoudler is a Ukrainian flag. The environment is snowy and the sky is white from clouds.

A Ukraine flag placed on a statue of a coal miner in the center of Longyearbyen

Steffen Trumpf/dpa/ZUMA
Laura Berny

LONGYEARBYEN — The Longyearbreen glacier, which once unfurled to the sea, is now a shadow of its former self. Only the name of Longyearbyen’s Isfjorden now conveys the idea of something frozen.

“Last January, during the polar winter, the temperature was between 0 and 5 °C. When I went for a walk by the fjord, I could hear the waves. This was not the case before at this time of year,” says Heidi Sevestre. The French glaciologist fell in love with Svalbard as a student, so much so that she now lives here for part of the year.

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Compared to Siberia, Canada’s and Greenland’s High North – the Arctic archipelago, located just over a thousand kilometers from the North Pole – has historically benefited from a slightly more benign climate despite its extreme latitude. Temperatures here range between 5 °C and 15 °C in summer and usually not below -30 °C in the coldest of winter. This relatively “mild" weather has its origin in the Gulf Stream — the marine current which rises up from the Caribbean and runs along the west coast of Svalbard.

But the situation has now changed.

“There has been a lot of talk about the rise in atmospheric temperature for at least 20 years. But in the past three years, ocean temperatures have also risen significantly. This is what is causing the increasingly rapid retreat of the ice pack,” explains Jean-Charles Gallet, a glaciologist who has worked at the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) since 2010.

“The sea ice acts like an air conditioner for the ocean, so the more it decreases, the more the ocean warms up. This causes a chain reaction which ends up accelerating the warming process,” adds Eero Rinne, a Finnish specialist on the topic and a researcher at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS). Rinne is working on the CRISTAL sea ice satellite mission, slated to go live in 2028 as part of the European Space Agency’s Copernicus program.

Beyond the alarming disappearance of glaciers and ice packs and the threat to polar bears (of which there are still around 300 in the archipelago), global warming is also causing cracks in the infrastructure of the territory, which is covered by permafrost. Landslides are increasingly frequent, and all recently constructed buildings in the region are on stilts.

“It used to rain very little in Svalbard, but now it is getting wetter and wetter, which is weakening the soil,” explains Hanne Hvidtfeldt Christiansen, a Danish-Norwegian scientist and specialist on permafrost at UNIS.

Norwegians kept a low profile about Svalbard's growing crisis, until 2017. That was the year when the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was flooded, less than 10 years after its foundation. The facility, dug near a mine in Longyearbyen, the capital of the archipelago, was built to preserve more than a million seeds from a possible cataclysm. The disaster didn’t affect the seeds but left a scar in people’s minds. Even this close to the pole, permafrost is thawing.

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