Pope Francis Calls on Congress to Promote Peace and End the Arms Trade

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, making history as the first pontiff to do so. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, making history as the first pontiff to do so. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

In a speech before a joint meeting of Congress, Pope Francis on Thursday called on lawmakers to promote peace and stop selling weapons abroad.

"Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world," he said.

"Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society?" he added. "Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade."

His reference to foreign military sales, as they're known in U.S. government parlance, isn't the first controversial topic the popular pontiff has raised during his first trip to the U.S.

The pope on Wednesday referenced the church's child sex abuse scandal when he told Catholic bishops to "work to ensure such crimes will never be repeated." He also appealed for Americans to take in refugees, including those from war-torn Syria, and tackle climate change.

In his address to U.S. lawmakers, Francis put the spotlight on the country's status as the top supplier of weapons in the world.

In the five-year period through 2014, the U.S. exported weapons and defense equipment valued at almost $44 billion -- more than any other country, according to a database maintained by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a research group that bills itself as "the independent resource on global security."

In the same timeframe, the country's share of global arms transfers amounted to 31 percent; followed by Russia, at 27 percent; and then China, Germany and France, which accounted for 5 percent apiece, according to the organization's 2015 yearbook.

Indeed, the U.S. Army alone in 2014 had a record year for foreign military sales, with rising demand from governments in the Middle East and elsewhere for such weapons systems as Apache AH-64 attack helicopters, as well as Patriot and Javelin missiles, a top general said.

The United States Army Security Assistance Command in fiscal 2014 had a "significant increase" to 719 instances of such sales potentially worth a total of $21 billion, according to Gen. Dennis Via, the head of Army Materiel Command.

"Our allies want U.S.-made equipment," he said last year. "They trust that equipment. They trust when we establish an FMS agreement with them that they're going to see a quality product, they're going to see the sustainment and training behind that product."

The deals also support the Army's strategic goal of partnering with allies to deal with complex contingencies, Via said at the time.

"It increases compatibility and we can train with those forces," he said. "So I see that continuing to increase, not just in the Middle East. We're seeing that growth throughout the rest of the world. We're seeing an increase in the Pacific, an increase in South America, an increase with some of our allies in Europe."

Defense contractors spend large sums of money on political donations and lobbying expenditures to get their message heard on Capitol Hill.

For example, companies in the defense industry spent more than $128 million on lobbying in 2014, according to Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group in Washington, D.C., which tracks the influence of money in politics. Led by Lockheed Martin Corp., the world's largest defense contractor, they also spent about $25 million in political contributions during the 2014 congressional election, according to CRP. That, however, was the lowest-ranking of 13 sectors analyzed by the organization; the first was the financial, insurance and real estate sector, which donated more than a half-billion dollars during the election cycle, according to CRP.

Pope Francis warned against oversimplifying the reasons for conflict in many parts of the world.

"Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion," he said. "We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind.

"A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms," he said.

"But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners," he added.

"The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps," he said. "We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place."

--Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.

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