Doug Mills / Reuters Pope Francis is welcomed to the Speakers Balcony at the U.S. Capitol by members of Congress in Washington, September 24, 2015.

The Political Pope

How Francis Was Thrust Into the World's Most Intractable Conflicts

On Friday morning, the Vatican’s yellow-and-white flag was, for the first time, hoisted over the United Nations. Other than the flag, there will be little else to mark the occasion of Pope Francis’ address to the UN General Assembly. In fact, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office had to convince the pope’s team to accept even that honor.

The issue first came up when Palestine, the assembly’s other permanent observer, promoted a resolution to allow the two nonmember banners to stand next to 193 member flags. The Vatican pressed to have its name removed from a draft text; the Holy See signed its first bilateral accord with Palestine in May and has referred to the “State of Palestine” since Francis visited last year, but Francis still considered the motion to be unnecessarily antagonistic toward Israel and the United States, which both opposed it. In the end, even though the specific reference to the Holy See was deleted, the resolution still referred more generally to “raising the flags of nonmember observer states,” a category that includes the Vatican. The resolution passed with 119 votes in favor, including France, Italy, Japan, Spain, Sweden, and Poland; eight votes against, including Australia, Canada, Israel, and the United States; and 45 abstentions, including Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Baltic States.

The episode sums up Francis’ diplomatic style in a nutshell—promote reconciliation without offending key stakeholders. Press antagonists to encounter each other while avoiding affronting political leaders. For example, last week in Cuba, even as Francis called for a “revolution of tenderness,” he resisted pressure to meet with the island’s persecuted political dissidents. In Ecuador two months ago, the pope likewise avoided photo ops with President Rafael Correa's critics, who mounted major street protests in the weeks leading up to the pontiff’s visit.

Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he rides down Fifth Avenue in New York, September 24, 2015. Pope Francis is on a five-day trip to the United States, which includes stops in Washington DC, New York, and Philadelphia, after a three-day stay in Cuba.

Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he rides down Fifth Avenue in New York, September 24, 2015.

As a religious leader, Francis is charged with upholding values that transcend politics, which is why he tries not to play in political games. At the same time, however,

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