Christmas this year seems more the occasion of religious war than of the peace to which the greeting cards routinely allude. Peace talks, such as the “5 plus 1” talks seeking reconciliation with Iran to eliminate the threat of war from or against that country, are the subject of sectarian and political attack inside the U.S. Congress and in Israel. Who wants peace if you can have the rewarding destruction of a rival?

In Syria, savage civil war among Alawites, Shi’ites and Sunnis in Syria, together with their foreign sponsors in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is the bitter fruit of what was once a vast Arab liberation movement seeming to promise a generational transformation in Maghreb, Egyptian and Arab Islamic political civilization.

In Central Africa, good intentions have caused the French to walk into a war between the Catholic and animist majority and the Muslim minority. The Catholic archbishop says the affair is at the point of tipping into chaos; that the religious leaders and clergy of both Catholics and Muslims can’t get people to listen; that on both sides, people are beyond forgiving the attacks and deaths that already have taken place, and “barbarian irrationality” risks being set loose. The French troops, once the colonial power here, are buying time, but the time necessary may be unavailable.

The Serbs still hate Bosnian and Kosovo Muslims, who reciprocate in kind. Bosnia-Herzegovina still is incapable of putting Bosnia and Herzegovina together into the single state they are supposed to be. German policemen have had to be sent to Kosovo by the EU to keep apart Albanian Kosovars and hostile Serbs in the north. When the Serbs and Croats went to war with one another in 1991, a Croatian general was quoted as saying with satisfaction that “we have been waiting 800 years for this.”

South Sudan, scarcely yet a state, has an erupting conflict between presidential candidates and Dinka and Nuer tribal groups. Oil is behind this, and as in Central Africa, personal rivalries between individual claimants to power. It is the same today in Turkey, itself only recently seen as the most progressive of Islamic states and a leading candidate for membership in the European Union. But of course, the EU was created thanks to Hitler. It was launched so that there could never again be a European ideological civil war.

Can such an ambition succeed? People on the Spanish left recently were digging up the mass graves of its civil war victims to rekindle old hatreds, and the government of the right, now in power, wants new anti-abortion legislation to outrage the Catholics whose grandparents supported Franco. This is all vengeance sought by people who are too young ever to have known the crimes committed against and by their ancestors.

When I was an adolescent in the state of Georgia there were Civil War widows still alive. “The” war was not the Second World War, which had just begun, but the War Between the States, not so long over.

When Barack Obama first addressed Congress in 2009, a puppy Congressman from South Carolina contemptuously insulted him. Tea party adherents often fly the Confederate battle-flag on their cars. The American novelist and citizen, Julien Green, born in Paris to American parents who had left the United States so as not to live under Yankee rule, grew up in a Paris apartment where the Confederate flag dominated. An American movement to reconstitute the Confederacy exists — perhaps a good idea that would greatly pacify the atmosphere in the Union’s Congress.

The United States, according to President Obama, is the “greatest force for freedom and security that the world has ever known.” He doesn’t mention peace, since the United States during the last two decades has chosen to be constantly at war.

The only man of peace for whom there currently seems universal admiration and deference is Pope Francis. For most West European and American admirers, that seems less to be because they want the peace the Pope calls for in his Christmas declaration, but because they want women and married priests — and because the Pope has asked who is he to pass judgment on homosexuals who are believing Christians.

No doubt he nonetheless is praying for all of us this Christmas. We need the prayers.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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