Pope Francis on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila) slammed “state terrorism” that “kills the innocent at the same time as terrorists”, just hours after he had taken a swipe at the “haggard” state of Europe.
It was not clear whom the pontiff was referring to in the remarks made on his plane returning to the Vatican from a visit to the European Parliament and Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, but there was little doubt they would make waves.
The 77-year-old Argentinian pontiff was responding to a complex question about the threat posed by groups like Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and the scourge of modern slavery.
“There is another threat, that of state terrorism” the pope said, bemoaning what happens when international crises degenerate.
“Each state, for its own part, feels it has the right to massacre terrorists. But so many innocent people perish at the same time as the terrorists,” he said.
“It is a type of high-level anarchy which is very dangerous.”
The pope’s comments could — and almost certainly will be — interpreted as referring to action by a number of governments, including Syria’s attempts to crush Islamist rebels, US action against Islamic State (IS) and its drone strikes in Afghanistan/Pakistan, or Israeli operations against Palestinian militants.
Vatican experts suggested they could be an attempt to rebalance remarks the leader of the Catholic church made in August on his return from a visit to South Korea which were widely interpreted as suggesting military action against IS could be justified by Christian theology.
On Tuesday, Francis said: “We have to fight terrorism. But when you have to stop an unjust aggressor, it has to be done with international consensus. No country can, on its own, stop an unjust aggressor.”
Earlier in the day, the pontiff had aimed a broadside at a Europe that “seems to give the impression of being somewhat elderly and haggard, feeling less and less a protagonist”.
Francis — whose four-hour trip was the shortest abroad by any pope — was critical of the growing nationalist and anti-immigration sentiment that has surged in Europe amid economic stagnation and unemployment.
Yet he also seemed to echo some of the complaints by eurosceptic parties that won big in the European Parliament elections in May, when he criticised the EU for failing its citizens and being non-democratic.
“The great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions,” he said.
The strongest language was reserved for a call for a “united response” to the plight of migrants fleeing the Middle East and Africa, more than 3,200 of whom have died trying to reach Europe this year alone.
“We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery,” he said.
“The boats landing daily on the shores of Europe are filled with men and women who need acceptance and assistance.”
Bells rang out from churches across Strasbourg to mark his visit, including the historic cathedral, where hundreds watched his speech on giant screens.
“The pope comes with a message of peace. He’s come to speak to parliamentarians to build a united Europe where there will be respect for everyone,” said Melanie Makougang, who was visiting from Cameroon.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who welcomed Francis to the huge glass and steel building, said his visit was important at a time of “tremendous loss of confidence in the European institutions”.
Francis’s visit was relatively uneventful compared to 26 years ago when John Paul II was heckled as the “anti-Christ” by the late Northern Ireland Protestant unionist leader Ian Paisley.
In his address to the Council of Europe, Francis appeared to allude to the crisis in Ukraine, calling for a “political solution” to end tensions in Europe.
“How great a toll of suffering and death is still being exacted on this continent?” he asked.