Vigorous Defense of Human Rights Is Urged by Pope in U.N. Address
Published: April 19, 2008
Pope Benedict XVI arrived in New York on Friday, turning his attention beyond the challenges faced by the Roman Catholic Church: He addressed the United Nations, stressing the importance of human rights; offered Passover greetings at an Upper East Side synagogue; and met with other Christian leaders.
Touring a city defined by its diversity, the pope shook hands with its former mayor, Edward I. Koch, and rubbed the fuzz on several babies’ heads.
Benedict, a man who has shunned the spotlight for most of his life, was greeted like a rock star.
The pope flew to New York on the Alitalia papal plane, called “Shepherd One,” from Washington, where he had largely devoted his efforts to addressing the issue of sexual abuse by priests. On Thursday afternoon, he held a surprise meeting there with five victims from Boston, the city where the scandal unfolded with particular anger and division.
But for the first day since he arrived in America, the pope did not address the scandal on Friday.
After being greeted at Kennedy Airport by Cardinal Edward C. Egan, head of the New York archdiocese, Benedict flew by helicopter directly to the United Nations.
The 81-year-old pope, who was a young German prisoner in the war that forged the United Nations, insisted that human rights — more than force or pragmatic politics — must be the basis for ending war and poverty.
“The promotion of human rights remains the most effective strategy for eliminating inequalities between countries and social groups, and for increasing security,” Benedict told the United Nations General Assembly.
“Indeed, the victims of hardship and despair, whose human dignity is violated with impunity, become easy prey to the call to violence, and they can then become violators of peace,” he said.
He made no explicit reference to a nation or conflict in particular, and he laid no specific blame in the half-hour speech, which was densely packed with philosophy and theology. But he did mention briefly some specific priorities for the Vatican, like protecting the environment, and making sure that poor nations, especially in Africa, also reap the benefits of globalization.
And in a passage that will have particular resonance for the current United Nations leadership, which is trying to establish the right of the outside world to intervene in situations where nations fail to shield their own citizens from atrocities, the pope said that “every state has the primary duty to protect its own population from grave and sustained violations of human rights.”
The concept, known as “responsibility to protect,” is one that Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general, has backed as a way for international institutions to take action in regions like Darfur.
“If states are unable to guarantee such protection,” the pope said, “the international community must intervene with the juridical means provided in the United Nations charter and in other international instruments.” In an apparent allusion to countries that claim such international actions constitute intervention in their national affairs, he said they “should never be interpreted as an unwarranted imposition or a limitation of sovereignty.”
He added, “On the contrary, it is indifference or failure to intervene that do the real damage.”
In his speech, Benedict touched on themes important both to his three-year-old papacy and his decades of writing as a cardinal and one of the church’s leading intellectuals.
At base, the pope presented the idea that there are universal values that transcend the diversity — cultural, ethnic or ideological — embodied in an institution like the United Nations, founded to help prevent the ruin of another world war. Those values are at the base of human rights, he said, as they are for religion. Thus religion, he said, cannot be shut out of a body like the United Nations, which he said aims at “a social order respectful of the dignity and rights of the person.”
“A vision of life firmly anchored in the religious dimension can help achieve this,” he said. “Recognition of the transcendent value of every man and woman favors conversion of heart, which then leads to a commitment to resist violence, terrorism, war and to promote justice and peace.
Benedict was introduced to the thronged General Assembly hall by Mr. Ban, who called the United Nations a secular institution but is “home to all men and women of faith around the world.”
The speech to the General Assembly is a papal tradition: Pope Paul VI made an appearance in 1965, and Pope John Paul II in 1979 and 1995.
On Friday afternoon, Benedict met with local Jewish clergy at the Park East Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation on the Upper East Side founded in 1890. It was the first papal visit to a synagogue in this country; only two other visits have ever been recorded, both in Europe.
Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a Holocaust survivor who has led the synagogue since 1962, greeted Benedict and told him that his visit was “a reaffirmation of your outreach, good will, and commitment to enhancing Jewish-Catholic relations.” He presented Benedict with a silver Seder plate and a box of matzo, just in time for Passover, which begins on Saturday evening.
“The Jewish community make a valuable contribution to the life of the city,” the pope told the Jewish leaders, “and I encourage all of you to continue building bridges of friendship with all the many different ethnic and religious groups present in your neighborhood.”
The pope then posed for photographs with several prominent Jewish New Yorkers, including Mr. Koch, the former mayor. Later in the evening, the pope met with the ministers of various denominations, including the Rev. Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Ms. King declined to say what they discussed, saying only, “He blessed me.”