Since ascending to the papacy two years ago, Pope Francis has been quietly and not-so-quietly leaving his mark on the world, pursuing a number of ambitious foreign policy goals. His nine-day trip to Latin America that begins Sunday will be mostly focused on pastoral issues. But from Cuba to Vietnam, the Middle East and environmental decay, here are some of the key dossiers keeping the Vatican's diplomatic corps hard at work:
PUTIN IN PLACE
Despite keeping him waiting for almost an hour, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with the Pope at the Vatican on June 10th. Putin is seen as a conduit for dialogue with his close ally Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, with which the Vatican wishes to strengthen ties and mend the age-old schism between the competing branches of Christianity. But Turin newspaper La Stampa reports that Francis also wants to lean on Russia to find a solution to the Ukraine crisis and as a way to help protect the beleaguered Christian population of the Middle East.
Putin and Pope Francis meet at the Vatican on June 10th — Photo: Evandro Inetti/ZUMA
When Cuba and the United States restored diplomatic ties in December, it was seen as a diplomatic coup for respective presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama. But as Spanish daily El País writes, the Pope played a central role in arranging the historic reconciliation through a series of secret meetings. He recently met with President Castro in Rome, where the communist leader declared he would consider rejoining the Catholic faith. Francis is set to visit both Cuba and the United States in September, and further progresson the restoration of ties between the two countries could coincide with the trip.
In May, the Holy See became the 136th country to officially recognize the State of Palestine in a historic bilateral treaty safeguarding Catholic activities in the West Bank. In a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the Pope called upon him to be an "angel of peace" and work towards a two-state solution. Le Mondereports that the Pope began laying the groundwork for the treaty in his visit to the Holy Land in 2014.
A Jordanian flag billows behind the Pope in the West Bank — Photo: Evandro Inetti/ZUMA
PRAYERS FOR PEACE
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos recently visited the Vatican, where the pope told him he is the person "for whom he prays the most." The Bogotá-based daily El Tiempo reports that Francis offered to help mediate the ongoing peace talks in Cuba between the Colombian government and the FARC rebel group, with the aim of ending a decades-long civil war. He also emphasized the importance of forgiveness, noting that he could bring forward a planned trip to Colombia if the pace of the negotiations accelerates.
Santos and Francis exchange gifts at the Vatican — Photo: Evandro Inetti/ZUMA
After years of painstaking dialogue and the Pope's appointment of a special representative to the country in 2011, Rome newspaper Il Messaggero reports that the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung agreed to visit the Vatican this October and begin normalizing diplomatic relations. Much like China, Vietnam doesn't recognize the Holy See. Yet unlike their northern neighbors, Vietnam's estimated 5.75 million Catholics can pray openly in Vatican-sanctioned churches. Will the emerging rapprochement with Hanoi raise hopes that a similar accord could be reached with Beijing? Still too early to say.
BONUS: THE GREEN POPE?
In another bold move, the Pope released a much-anticipated encyclical last month that dealt with climate change, citing theological reasons for humanity to take better care of the planet. La Stampa"s affiliate Vatican Insider writes that Francis discussed the issue with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in Rome in April, with both looking forward to the climate change conference in Paris this December as an opportunity to make genuine progress on the issue.
Copies of Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si" — Photo: Evandro Inetti/ZUMA