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How Pope Francis became such a force in foreign policy

Pope Francis leads a mass for Armenian Catholics marking 100 years since the mass killings of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire on April 12 at St. Peter’s basilica in Vatican City. (Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)
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Two Jesuit priests visiting New York this week from the frontlines in Syria hope to keep the crisis from falling off the world’s humanitarian horizon. They know that the bloodletting in Syria competes every day with headlines from new global flashpoints — Yemen, Nigeria Ukraine. How can this crisis ever be brought to an end? Who might be able to convene a multilateral counsel that could tackle Syria and the other emerging conflicts of the post-Arab Spring? Only Pope Francis, they decide, has the moral authority and international credibility to pull that diplomatic miracle off.

Known for his sensitive approach to some of the thorniest pastoral problems confronting the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has also become an active participant in a number of international affairs. He even had a direct hand in unraveling the decades-long impasse between the United States and Cuba.

He has pushed for diplomacy in Syria and in resolving the question of Iran’s nuclear intentions. On Sunday, he called the Armenian genocide by name, something diplomats in other states, including the United States, have long been hesitant to do, fearing its effect on relations with Turkey. The Vatican likewise prefers a constructive relationship with Ankara, but the pope has apparently decided that that relationship has to be based on truth.

Francis’s “off the script” humanity has proved dramatically effective in reaching people around the world. When he calls for peace in Syria, demands a multilateral response to Islamic State terror in Iraq, speaks out on behalf of migrants perishing on the Mediterranean, the pope’s voice cracks and chokes, his face twists in anguish.

He brings a sincerity and compassion to international affairs that few professional diplomats would dare emulate, but which has moved millions.

There is nothing radically different about the positions Pope Francis takes on some of the foreign policy issues of our times. Pope Benedict XVI, for example, was just as critical of free market impacts on the world’s most vulnerable and first positioned himself as the “green pope” on climate change.

It should come as no surprise that Pope Francis has involved himself in the great global affairs of his times. The church, after all, represents perhaps the largest and oldest transnational entity in the world. Its diplomats have long been reliable backchannel operatives for the world’s great powers on tricky matters that require subtlety and discretion. But the church’s diplomatic initiatives, whether they ever come to see the light of day, do not come without risk.

Francis is willing to take such risks, as he has already demonstrated within the church, where financial and structural reforms in Rome have ruffled curial feathers. He has spoken out against human trafficking and what he memorably termed a “globalization of indifference” encouraged by free market ideology.

The pope has defended the rights of refugees and migrants and called for a reassessment of the ethics of nuclear deterrence. He has reached out to the Islamic world by defending the rights of Muslims in the West and demanding protection for Christian communities in the Middle East.

There are risks for the pope in stepping forcefully into the world of foreign affairs. How will he repair the rift with Turkey when he has spoken so bluntly? His prayer offensive may have given President Obama enough pause for diplomacy to succeed in removing chemical weapons from Syria before U.S. airstrikes attempted the same, but some have come to criticize the pope’s intervention. Did he save lives in Syria or merely contribute to prolonging a gruesome stalemate? It was nice to see Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres pray together in Rome in 2014, but just weeks later came shock and awe over Gaza — again. Had the pope  accomplished nothing?

Even as the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis continues, getting both sides together in prayer was a symbolic achievement that could yet bear fruit in ways we don’t understand or recognize today. A believer in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, of things seen and unseen, Pope Francis recognizes that he remains an instrument of a future he cannot completely foresee and may not experience. That’s why he will remain willing to take risks, why he will be willing to orchestrate prayerful gestures that may seem futile or naive but which could be the seed for the peaceful co-existence that should be the aim of all contemporary foreign policy.

Kevin Clarke is a senior editor and chief correspondent at America magazine.