When Pope Francis and Queen Elizabeth, two of the world’s best loved leaders, meet at the Vatican on Thursday, millions of fans will be expecting smiles, empathy and mutual respect, in short a bit of a love-in.
The only catch is that the British monarch and the Argentine pontiff have recently positioned themselves very firmly on the opposite sides of an escalating and bitter diplomatic battle between the UK and Argentina that kicked off with a bloody war.
In 1982, few Britons had heard of the Falkland Islands, a tiny British possession in the south Atlantic, handy for sheep farming, and 300 miles off the coast of Argentina. But when Buenos Aires claimed ownership and sent in soldiers, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher replied with a hefty task force which killed 649 Argentines, suffering 255 losses, while taking the islands back.
Three decades on, neither Pope Francis—the ‘cool’ pontiff who invites homeless people to his birthday party—nor Elizabeth—the corgi-loving monarch who likes a joke—fit the bill of warmongering leaders.
But with Argentine president Cristina Kirchner now fanning the flames of resentment at home about Argentina’s 1982 defeat and ramping up a diplomatic battle to win back the islands, both Francis and Elizabeth have weighed in.
In 2012, when he was plain Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future pope said Argentine soldiers had died in the Falklands trying to “ defend their mother, the homeland, and to reclaim what is theirs,” adding for good measure that Britain had “usurped” the islands.
A year later, in May 2013, the Queen said: “My Government will ensure the security, good governance and development of the Overseas Territories, including by protecting the Falkland islanders’ … right to determine their political futures.”
Elizabeth was likely referring to the referendum held in March that year in which the roughly 3,000 Falkland islanders were asked if they wanted to remain part of the UK. With a turnout of 92 percent, 99.8 percent voted to stay, with three people voting against.
Days later, Bergoglio was elected pope by a conclave of cardinals. Asked about the new pontiff’s views on the Falklands, UK prime minister David Cameron dared a joke at his expense, recalling the referendum and stating: “The white smoke over the Falklands was pretty clear.”
The row over the Falklands dates back to 1816, when Argentina says it acquired the islands, which it calls the Malvinas, from Spain before Britain illegally occupied them in 1833. The UK bases its claim on its administration of the islands since then, as well as the islanders’ right to self determination.
The saga is also the story of strong women, starting with Thatcher, who pushed hard to retake the islands in 1982, using the campaign to shore up her support at home according to her critics.
The same claim has been made about Cristina Kirchner’s bid to restart talks about the island as she struggles to steady the Argentine economy. Kirchner dismissed the voters in the referendum as “squatters”, and last month compared the vote to the recent Crimea referendum, which the UK has refused to recognize.
Kirchner also wasted no time trying to enrole Francis in her campaign.
“I asked for his intervention to promote dialogue between the two sides and to avoid problems that could arise from the British militarization of the South Atlantic,” she said after meeting him a day before his inauguration last March.
Argentina claims that the UK is violating a UN deal to avoid a military build up in the area, and Buenos Aries was incensed when Prince William, the Queen’s grandson, was dispatched to the islands as a rescue pilot with the UK Royal Air Force.
In January, Kirchner even appointed a Falklands Islands secretary, Daniel Filmus, who told the Daily Telegraph that the Argentines “find it inconceivable—at this stage in the 21st century—that a portion of their territory should be in the possession of a colonial power.”
Kirchner was back at the Vatican on March 17 for another meeting with Francis that ran over two hours, more than double the time Obama got during his recent visit.
This time, the Argentine embassy to the Holy See said the Falklands had not been discussed, but the islands were clearly on Francis’ mind.
Two days later, he stopped to spend a few minutes in St Peter’s Square chatting to a group of Argentine war veterans who showed up for his general audience, and, more interestingly, he signed a placard they produced calling for support of the UN ruling on demilitarization in the south Atlantic.
So will Francis bring up the thorny issue to the Queen on Thursday, when she calls on him? Not according to the UK ambassador to the Holy See, Nigel Baker. “The nature of the meeting is not political,” he said. “Political issues will not be raised.”
Asked on Wednesday about the Falklands, Baker said: “The Vatican has been clear with us, including in the last week, and at a very senior level, that their long standing position of neutrality on this issue remains in force.”
But Francis—a notoriously plain speaker—and the Queen, herself no shrinking violet, may struggle to tiptoe around the issue, which means close attention will be paid to their body language as they exchange gifts after the meeting.
These are two heavy-hitters with jobs for life. The Pope can count on the backing of 1.2 billion Catholics, far more than the Queen of England, who reigns over 134 million Britons, Canadians, Australians and other Commonwealth citizens, but she does have a chunk of the Antarctic named after her. To mark her diamond jubilee in 2012, the British government decided to name a 169,000 square mile slice of of its Antarctic territory “Queen Elizabeth Land”.
Sitting just off the southern tip of South America, Queen Elizabeth Land naturally drew the ire of Argentina, which lodged a formal protest. The name change, it said, smacked of “anachronistic imperialist ambitions.”