Tt was October 1978, during the Lebanon war. Syrian artillery pounded the free enclave of my motherland: Dozens of civilians were killed every day. As a law student, I wondered when and if this injustice would stop–and who could end it? Our country had been invaded by the Baath of Syria, one of the fiercest allies of the Soviet. In order to crush the local resistance, thousands of tons of artillery shells were crashing on civilian neighborhoods, a scene reminiscent in my mind then of the Warsaw siege of 1944. We hid in shelters listening to the radio, hoping for an end to the bombardments, but we could foresee no international intervention. Suddenly, on October 16, the radio announced that a new pope had been elected to replace the previous pontiff who died only weeks into his tenure. We were surprised: He was the first non-Roman head of the Catholic Church in centuries, and he was Polish. I instantly connected the Warsaw siege; there was no doubt in my mind that something would change.
And indeed, many things did, starting in my besieged neighborhood: The Syrian cannons stopped their relentless bombardment, saving thousands from annihilation. Later, I learned from diplomatic sources that one of the main Syria stopped was because Pope John Paul II, only days into his papacy, firmly spoke in behalf of the voiceless. He had identified, we were told, with the encircled families. Many other besieged people like mine probably owe him their lives.
After that, I followed the pope’s trajectory in world affairs and witnessed his drive for freedom, particularly with the nations living under the Communist yoke. He called for citizens to speak without fear, and he thus emboldened many leaders and intellectuals who chose the truth over safety. Lech Walesa of Poland, Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia, Andrei Amalrik of Russia. Since his election, Rome had a bright new light of liberty guiding the Roman Curia’s diplomacy. Opposing injustice and oppression was never an easy path, but more men and women began to write and speak up with the Polish cardinal as head of the Vatican.
His moral influence was historic, but it was not limited to Europe, and it was not limited by the fall of Communism. With the end of the Cold War, the pope only redoubled his efforts: He sought to overcome the suffering inherited from the past and to bring hope to future generations. He visited the weak and the oppressed. He spoke directly to people living in fear: Cuba, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, among others. Millions came to pray and listen, and many more millions followed his journeys around the world.
Covering thousands of miles across the continents, he fostered a stream of hope for generations to come. Endless rows of boys and girls from all nationalities, chanting and dancing, met him in concerts around the globe, from Denver to Calcutta. They yearned for peace and hope, and he quenched their thirst with kindness and prayer. His love for the young, the younger, and the hopeless brings to mind words spoken in Aramaic by a Semitic man, who died some 2,000 years ago, and whose name we know well.
John Paul II, the Pope of Freedom, is finally at rest. But his message is not.
–Walid Phares is a professor of religion and world politics at Florida Atlantic University, author of World Christianity, where to?