4. Putin Turns to the Vatican
For the first time ever, a Russian Orthodox ruler in Moscow has appealed to the head of the Roman Catholic Church for assistance in persuading Europe’s powers-that-be and public opinion on any serious matter. The message Putin needed to get across was that the attack on Christian Beslan was part of a religious war waged by al Qaeda.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Moscow sources reveal that on Saturday, September 4, at the height of the carnage at the school, Russian president Vladimir Putin‘s office asked Russian Orthodox Bishop Feofan Achourkov, whose Stavropol diocese includes the town of Beslan, to set out at once for the Italian town of St. Egidio near Milan and attend a conference there. The bishop demurred, protesting he must stay with his flock in its darkest hours. But Putin’s aides insisted. Alexei II, Patriarch of Moscow, reinforced the request with an order to leave for Italy at once on a mission of vital importance.
On arriving at St. Egidio, the Orthodox bishop was closeted with the representatives of Pope John Paul II at the conference, Cardinals Renato Martino and Walter Kasper, who were to deliver addresses on the issue of terror. Bishop Achourkov asked them to pass a three-part message to the pontiff: 1. The terrorists who struck Beslan are Wahhabi Arabs and Russians. 2. The school siege should be seen by the Vatican as the first assault of its kind on members of the Christian faith. 3. A large-scale war is about to erupt in Chechnya and the Caucasus at large.
In their addresses the two cardinals later acknowledged the need for a military campaign to eliminate terrorism. The Pope sent a message that was read out to the conference on Wednesday, September 8, after the Kremlin’s message had been delivered, calling for firm action against terrorism, but coming short of endorsing military action.
Putin was moved to make his unconventional overture to the head of the Catholic Church by two considerations. First, Christian leaders would better appreciate the scale of the threat al Qaeda posed to Christendom than European officials who would automatically rule out any military action against Islamic expansion through the North Caucasus. Second, the slightest hint of Vatican sympathy for the Kremlin’s resort to arms against terrorists would help Putin win a measure of support, however tacit, from President George W. Bush and the understanding of the American public.