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"Don't mention the war," is one of those droll British witticisms. It refers to well-meaning people who don't want to offend. It originates from a classic episode of the much-loved British sitcom "Fawlty Towers."
When a group of German tourists stay at his shambolic hotel, Basil Fawlty, the bungling hotel manager, keeps repeating the phrase to his staff while managing to be extremely rude to his shocked guests from Deutschland. Inebriated by his cognitive dissonance, Basil's insults culminate in a goose-stepping impersonation of Adolf Hitler.
At the Bari conference of the Italian bishops, Pope Francis did mention the war — many wars, actually. He spoke plaintively of refugees from the Mediterranean region, "who are fleeing war or who have left their homelands in search of a humanly dignified life."
And he pointed his pontifical finger at the warmongers. First, he blamed the "many countries" who "talk about peace and then sell weapons to countries at war." Second, he scapegoated the populists — not naming Italian political leader Matteo Salvini, with his terrifying garrote-like Rosary, or Donald Trump, the enfant terrible of all populists.
"I grow fearful when I hear certain speeches by some leaders of the new forms of populism; it reminds me of speeches that disseminated fear and hatred back in the 30s of the last century," quivered Francis.
Donning his Greta Thunberg mantle, Francis also blamed the "increasingly dramatic environmental and climatic conditions" for the Mediterranean mess.
Border-bashing bishops from 19 countries surrounding the washbasin shared by Europe, Africa and Asia chimed in with the politically correct chorus scripted for the "Mediterraneo frontiera di pace" (Mediterranean Frontier of Peace) conference.
The bishops had their pom-poms out and were cheerleading for European countries like Italy to take in more migrants from war-torn countries bordering the Med. Archbishop Paul Desfarges, head of the archdiocese of Algiers and president of the Regional Episcopal Conference of Northern Africa, almost sounded like Joshua marching with his trumpet round and round the walls of Jericho. "There is no future in the nationalistic closure and retreat," he thundered.
Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian Episcopal Conference, who only last month told traditionalist Catholics to become Protestants if they didn't like Papa Francesco, painted a Gauguin-like idyllic picture of "the peoples of the coastal countries, who belong to the common root of Abraham."
On cue, Francis hit the high note referring to "the still unresolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, with the danger of inequitable solutions" — charmingly giving a thumbs down to Trump's Mideast peace plan.
Before you can whoop with ecstasy and sing "Querida Mediterránea" let's sniff a bit around the geopolitics of the Mediterranean. It's not complicated string theory.
Europe has 12 nations along the Mediterranean coast. So far, we haven't noticed Honduran-sized caravans of Frenchmen tucking in Coq au vin, singing La Marseillaise and making a beeline for asylum in Syria. Non, non, monsieur! We are happy to be blown up by our very own homegrown jihadis in Paris or Nice.
But according to the pope and the Bari bishops, Europe is to blame for the Mediterranean chaoskampf because those nasty white, racist, populist, nationalists are all Europeans, no?
Africa has five countries hugging the Mediterranean beaches: Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. Funny the bishops didn't notice younger sons of Abraham persecuting older sons of Abraham in all of these countries.
Algeria has seen a steep rise in every form of persecution over the last year, which is why it's risen five spots on the 2020 World Watch List. And the 129,000 Christians don't seem to be converting a lot of their 42 million Muslim fellow-citizens. Political instability has been growing steadily in Algeria since early 2019.
Egypt has seen political disruption from the protest uprisings (2011), the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi as Egyptian president (2012), the coup d'état which unseated Morsi (2013), to the assumption of power by autocratic president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (2014).
"Because Egyptians lack optimism about the future, many young people have sought to emigrate to Europe, often undertaking dangerous trips by boat across the Mediterranean," writes political scientist Lisa Blaydes.
Libya is a basket case. Morocco is politically stable, but Christians don't have religious freedom and it is illegal to evangelize. Tunisia faces regular terrorist threats from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Libya-based extremists with links to Daesh (ISIS).
Finally, Asia has Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey bordering the Mediterranean. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population continues to grow. Talking of open borders — Syria no longer has any! Lebanon continues to be rocked by political instability, unless you are a member of Hezbollah and relish the sport of firing rockets into Israel.
"In Turkey, the main religion, Islam, is enmeshed with fierce, fanatical nationalism," reports Christian persecution watchdog Open Doors. Last March, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey's virtual dictator, told Australians and New Zealanders that those who insult Islam would be sent home in coffins, just "like their grandfathers" at Gallipoli.
Ironically, even the leftwing Guardian newspaper calls the Turkish president a "populist colossus" and complains that "his most recent term in office was the most populist of any right-wing leader in the Global Populism Database" out of almost 140 leaders in Europe and the Americas. So has Pope Francis called him out?
The common denominator to the troubled Mediterranean countries is Islam and embryonic or full-blown Islamic extremism. But the Bari conference is quick to gloss over this cataclysmic faultline between Europe and the Islamic countries of the Mediterranean.
A conference paper by Adriano Roccucci admits that "the Muslim world is crossed by deep political and cultural divisions. Some of these are at the root of many Mediterranean conflicts." But Roccucci quickly notes that extremism is "not only an Islamic phenomenon" but "also present in other religious and cultural worlds — just think of white supremacy or Hindu fundamentalism." And, importantly, it is not Islamic, "but it has also disfigured the face of Islam."
Pope Francis persists in his fantasy, quoting in Bari his Abu Dhabi Document on Human Fraternity, which says "the authentic teachings of religions invite us to remain rooted in the values of peace; to defend the values of mutual understanding, human fraternity and harmonious coexistence."
You no longer need to understand English to enjoy "Fawlty Towers." You can now watch a full-scale Italian version of it acted out over five days in Bari. But for Allah's sake, don't mention Islam!