– When the United States established diplomatic relations with the Holy See back in January 1984, a televangelist asked rather sarcastically: when will Mecca send its own ambassador to Washington DC?
“It’s an odd fact of history,” ruminates Time magazine, “that the world’s youngest empire, the U.S., established diplomatic relations with the oldest, the Holy See, only a little over 30 years ago under (President) Ronald Reagan” who was long described as an advocate of church-state separation.
Over the last 70 years of the U.N.’s existence, successive Popes, representing more than one billion Catholics, have had the privilege of addressing the 193-member General Assembly.
Pope John Paul II addressed the United Nations in 1979 and 1995 and Pope Benedict XVI spoke to delegates in 2008. And Pope Francis, who is due to address the U.N.’s highest policy-making body Friday, will be the fourth to speak before the United Nations.
But other religious leaders, including Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, have never been offered that privilege – except participation in high-level forums.
Since Islam is not an institutionalized religion, it does not have the equivalent of either a Pope or a Vatican — although there are more than 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, perhaps far exceeding Catholics.
The Holy See is not a full-fledged U.N. member state but only holds the status of a “non-member observer state” — like Palestine.
Asked if there were any other religious leaders who were known to have addressed the world body, U.N. deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq told IPS: “It’s possible, if a religious leader were a head of state.”
But still, he admitted, it was “hard to say.”
In July 1974, Archbishop Makarios, first president of the Republic of Cyprus, addressed the U.N. Security Council after his ouster following the invasion of Cyprus by Greece.
However, what has been unequivocally re-affirmed over the last few decades is that the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhists, continues to be barred from the United Nations and virtually declared persona non grata — primarily for political reasons.
Tibet is currently under Chinese rule but there are dissident groups, which want to breakaway from China seeking independence.
But China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council has taken a tough stand against Tibetan dissidents – and specifically the Dalai Lama, although he would accept Tibet as a genuine autonomous region within the People’s Republic of China.
With various U.N. member states trying to keep dissidents and separatists out of the world body, the battle has occasionally shifted to the United Nations.
When the Dalai Lama was invited to address a religious meeting in the late 1990s, the Chinese got wind of it – and the ambassador personally registered his protest at the 38th floor of the Secretary-General ensuring the Dalai Lama would not address any gathering inside the U.N. building.
A similar episode took place earlier when the Dalai Lama was barred from participating or addressing the U.N. Human Rights conference in June 1993 in the Austrian capital of Vienna.
Joe Lauria, U.N. correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, told IPS: “I recall very well when the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA) in May 1993 invited Chinese dissident Shen Tong to come to the U.N., and U.N. security, on orders from (then Secretary-General Boutros) Boutros-Ghali blocked him at the visitor’s entrance, where I stood to greet him on behalf of UNCA”.
“I brought him into the building eventually and all the way to UNCA’s door where security guards wouldn’t let him go further. So we took him back to the street where we held the press conference in front of the gate. I remember it got lots of coverage with CNN Headline News running it all day.”
But Lauria said he does not recall the Dalai Lama being blocked from entering the U.N. premises.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, another longstanding U.N. correspondent told IPS about the arrival of a delegation of “ordinary” Tibetans for a meeting at the U.N. many moons ago.
“They were Canadian citizens and came in wearing Western clothes. Once in, they changed into traditional dress. The Chinese were furious but there were no grounds to kick out Canadians,” he said.
Another ex-journalist and former U.N. Bureau Chief told IPS the Dalai Lama has never been allowed to address the U.N. — courtesy of China.
“I discovered this years ago when there was a conference of world religious leaders.”
He had to “cancel” an appearance even at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the Upper West side of New York city.
“When I asked cathedral officials why they were allowing the extraterritorial jurisdiction by the U.N., they said lamely that the Dalai Lama had other engagements and couldn’t make it. I always doubted that, but Buddhists don’t come out shouting.”
Javier El-Hage, chief legal officer at the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), told IPS HRF believes that, in order to truly be the voice of the voiceless, Pope Francis should use the privilege of speaking at the United Nations to speak on behalf of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, whose voices are routinely silenced by the powerful Chinese dictatorship.
“Unfortunately, there is little hope that the highest representative of Catholicism will do this, given that last year he declined to meet with the Dalai Lama in Rome precisely in order not to upset China’s rulers. ”
Pope Francis should consider that, as with any other valuable asset, a religious leader’s huge moral capital can go to waste when he fails to use the opportunity to truly stand with the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden, and instead chooses to take friendly pictures with and provide legitimacy to authoritarian leaders, he added.