National Catholic Reporter
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Posted Monday, April 21, 2003 at 11:35 a.m. CST

U.S. official asks Vatican to help in post-war work in Iraq, Afghanistan



A senior Bush administration official has appealed to the Vatican to aid the United States in post-war rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a broad range of humanitarian projects in the developing world.

Tommy Thompson, the secretary of Health and Human Services, was in Rome recently to sign a health agreement with the Italian government. On April 19, Thompson met with Archbishop Javier Lozano Barragán, head of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care, to discuss collaboration between the United States and the Catholic Church around the world on crises such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and the lack of pre-natal and early infant care.

In this context, Thompson said he intended to appeal for the Vatican's assistance with a series of clinics for mothers and children he intends to finance in Afghanistan, and eventually in Iraq. Thompson was in Kabul on Easter Sunday, April 20, to open the first of these clinics, and he hopes to expand the program to Iraq as soon as the military clears his department to enter the country.

The United States is spending $1 million to operate the Kabul clinic this year. In addition to direct care, the clinic will also teach midwifery and child care to Afghani women who can in turn teach others.

"One out of every four infants in Afghanistan dies before the age of five," Thompson said. "We as a free society can do something for these women and children, and show the Muslim world what our values are all about."

Thompson said he eventually wants to build 30 of these clinics across Afghanistan, and a similar number in Iraq. He said he would welcome the collaboration of the Catholic Church.

Barragán could not immediately be reached for comment. Thompson, himself a Catholic who attended most of Pope John Paul's Holy Week liturgies, spoke to three Catholic press outlets, including NCR, in Rome the morning of April 19.

"We have resources, the Catholic Church has resources, especially in the form of Catholic charities," Thompson said. "I want to talk about areas in which we can work together."

Thompson, who also is chair of the World Global Fund on HIV/AIDS, says the idea of collaboration between the American government and the Vatican occurred to him while touring orphanages for children whose parents died of AIDS in Africa operated by the Catholic Church.

Thompson's track record suggests he will be untroubled by potential church/state separation issues. As governor of Wisconsin from 1987 to 2001, Thompson pioneered school choice programs that allowed parents to use public funds to pay for private, including religious, schools.

On the Vatican side, one potential complication could be whether the women's health programs will include contraceptives. Thompson said he would not rule out the distribution of contraceptive devices, though he said there are no plans to this effect and the United States would "absolutely not force contraception on any program that doesn't want it."

On the AIDS issue, Thompson said that 750,000 children are orphaned in Africa each year due to the disease, a number he believes can be reduced by 40 percent with proper health care. He said he would like to work with the Catholic Church, which in some African nations is the largest provider of care to AIDS victims.

Thompson said that some of the $15 billion Bush has pledged to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean could go to charities operated by religious groups such as the Baptists and Roman Catholics.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR's Vatican correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2003

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