The Iron Lady Shows Her Mettle

Margaret Thatcher has been hailed as the greatest political leader since Winston Churchill by admirers who claim that the ‘Iron Lady’, as she came to be known, saved Britain from economic ruin.  This view of the late Baroness Thatcher is not shared by everybody in the UK. YouTube and TV viewers worldwide have watched (in disgust, I would hope) at champagne-sipping revelers dancing in the streets just hours after her death.  “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” from the Wizard of Oz. has become the most requested tune on the airwaves.  The Iron Lady continues to divide people after death, as in life.  I count myself among her admirers.  And I think I know where Falkland Islanders stand.

For me, the name ‘Margaret Thatcher’ will forever conjure up thoughts and images of the Falkland Islands.  Three years ago on a cruise to Antarctica, I had the good fortune of being able to make a stop for part of a day in Port Stanley, capital city of the Falkland Islands. The Falkland Islands form an archipelago which lies 500 km east of southern Argentina and consists of two main islands, West Falkland and East Falkland, plus 740 smaller ones. Port Stanley is situated on East Falkland Island.  The Falkland Islands are classified as an Overseas Territory of the UK, independent in all but two areas:  foreign affairs and, significantly, defense.

As our cruise ship approached ever closer to East Falkland that day, it was the brightly-coloured roofs of the houses which studded the treeless terrain that first caught my eye.

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After disembarking from the tender that brought cruise passengers ashore, I began my exploration of Port Stanley starting at the cathedral, the southernmost Anglican cathedral in the world.  It must be like no other cathedral in the world: Not far from the cathedral’s entrance is an arch made out of the jawbones of two blue whales! 

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From there I made my way along the main street, Ross Road, which hugs the shoreline of Stanley Harbour.  I was struck by the beautiful English gardens I passed along the way, with their lupines, red-hot pokers, and other flower specimens I hadn’t expected to see at latitude 52 º South.  It seemed to me that the Falkland Islanders were using flowers–along with their bright roof tops–as a way to inject colour into their stark environment.

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As I continued along the main road, I noticed a ‘Margaret Thatcher Drive’ off to my left.  I passed two war monuments:  One, a WWI monument dedicated to those British sailors who defeated a German fleet in December of 1914, thus saving the Falkland Islands from German occupation (a sign of just how strategically important these remote islands have been over the years); the second, the Liberation Monument, erected to honour the British soldiers who fell in battle during a more recent war, the Falkland Islands War. 

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This was a war that never should have happened.  After being in office only four months, President Galtieri, head of Argentina’s ruling junta, authorized an invasion of the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982 as a way to boost his low popularity.  Galtieri knew that such a move would resonate with the Argentinean people who regarded the Falkland Islands, or Las Malvinas, as rightfully theirs–as they do to this very day.  (Just recently, in what was a rather unseemly manoeuvre, in my estimation, Argentina’s current president Christina Fernandez tried to get the newly-installed Pope Francis to intervene on Argentina’s side in the dispute over ownership of the islands.)  On April 4, Argentinean forces captured Port Stanley.  Galtieri never expected the UK government to respond militarily.  These treeless, windswept, rocky outcrops in the South Atlantic, of seemingly little worth, with more sheep than human inhabitants, were almost 13,000 km away from the seat of British Power.  But then, Galtieri didn’t know the Iron Lady! 

My stroll along the main street ended at the Falkland Islands Museum & National Trust  which, along with local flora and fauna specimens, contains artifacts from the Falkland Islands War. 

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One object in particular drew my attention:  It was the life preserver from the SS Uganda.  I felt like I had a connection to that life preserver!  In 1982, one of my family members was booked to sail on the SS Uganda to Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and Israel as part of a school education cruise.  However, what was to have been a cruise to the Middle East suddenly became a bus trip through Europe when the British military without warning requisitioned the SS Uganda as a hospital ship at the outbreak of hostilities.  The 74-day conflict ended 14 June 1982 with 649 Argentineans, 255 British, and 3 Falkland Islanders dead. 

Those who think that the Falkland Islands should be part of Argentina because of their proximity to South America have probably never been to the Islands.  In the six or seven hours I spent there, I was struck by the “British-ness” of these remote islands in the South Atlantic:  the Union Jacks, the accents (which sounded British to me, although locals believe their accent isn’t quite the same), the impressive Anglican cathedral, the beautiful English flower gardens, the fish and chip shops, drivers driving on the “wrong” side of the road–other, more intangible, things.  The 2,500 plus Falkland Islanders recently voted overwhelmingly to remain what they have been since 1833:  British.  From what I saw that day, particularly in the Museum, I know that the Falkland Islanders hold Margaret Thatcher in high regard. When the Argentineans invaded back in April 1982, any other leader–certainly, any leader today–would have turned to that ineffective political “talk-shop” known as the UN.  Not so with the Iron Lady.  She ordered British forces to retake the Islands. And they did.  To the Falkland Islanders, the Iron Lady is their Liberator.  I see that the upcoming Iron Lady’s funeral is going to have a Falklands Island theme.  Very fitting!  

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Pope Francis: What’s in a Name?

The election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope a little over two weeks ago took almost everybody by surprise, even veteran Vatican watchers.  No one predicted that Benedict XVI’s successor would be Argentinean, that he would be the first Jesuit Pope, or that he would take the name ‘Francis’. There is so much that is new about this new Pope.  As a consequence, Pope Francis’ election has come to be seen by some as signaling a “fresh start” for a Catholic Church discredited by sexual and financial scandals.    

Asked why he chose the name ‘Francis’, something no previous Pope had done, the new Pope responded that it was out of his  admiration for Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226).   The name ‘Francis of Assisi’ is a familiar one to both Catholics and non-Catholics, to any student of history, really.  As a young man, Francis renounced his father’s wealth, choosing instead to live the lifestyle of Jesus and his apostles. He embraced a life of poverty, charity, and humility.  Francis is reported to have once said, “We ought to be servants who are submissive to every human being for God’s sake.” The love of this 13th century monk for the poor, for animals, indeed, for all of nature, is legendary.  Francis of Assisi, lover of nature:  This is the image that comes to mind most frequently–to mine, if not most–upon hearing the name ‘Francis of Assisi’.     

True to his 13th century namesake, Pope Francis has demonstrated humility and simplicity since assuming the papacy.  (In truth, he led a humble and simple life long before in Buenos Aires where he lived in a modest flat and rode the bus to work.) The 21st century Francis has rejected the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace for simpler accommodation in a Vatican guesthouse, the Casa Santa Marta. At his installation, he wore a plain white chasuble, replaced his throne-like seat with a simple white chair, and turned down the papal red shoes for plain black ones.  He refused to wear the ermine-trimmed red cape and papal tiara worn by his predecessors.  Upon taking office, Pope Francis stated unequivocally that he wants “a poor church, for the poor.”

In a further attempt to project a new image of humility onto the papacy, on Maundy Thursday Pope Francis went beyond where any previous Pope has gone. Before Pope Francis, it had been the practice for the Pope to choose twelve priests to represent the twelve apostles at the annual ritual foot-washing ceremony held in St. John Lateran Basilica.  In a radical break with his predecessors, Pope Francis went to the Casa del Marmo juvenile detention center in Rome where he chose twelve prisoners–two of whom were females and one of the two females a Muslim–to have their feet washed and kissed by him. When quizzed by a mystified youth as to why the Pope was doing this, Pope Francis is said to have responded, “to help me be humble, as a bishop should be.”

Vatican watchers and onlookers in general applaud Pope Francis’ return to simplicity and humility.  But Pope Francis’ 13th century namesake isn’t known just for his love of the poor and love of nature.  Less well-known is Francis of Assisi’s evangelistic outreach to the Muslim world. 

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In 1219, Francis of Assisi went to Egypt at the time of the Fifth Crusade.  Landing at Damietta at the mouth of the Nile, Francis crossed over to the Saracen enemy camp during a truce in order to meet with the Sultan of Egypt, Sheikh al-Malik al-Kamel.  He spent the next three weeks in the Muslim camp, conversing with the Sultan. No one knows what was discussed.  If he had hoped to convert the Sultan, that never happened.  What did happen was that Francis, while he didn’t convert (at least, not that we know), he changed his mind about Islam.  Francis was deeply impressed by Muslim piety, particularly the five calls to prayer. (Interestingly enough, not long after this, the thrice-daily recitation of the Angelus became a feature of medieval Europe).  Francis ordered his followers not to try and make converts of Muslims.  Instead, the friars were to live peaceably among Muslims. 

Will Pope Francis emulate his namesake in this respect as well?  I think it most likely, given that Pope Francis engaged in interfaith dialogue in Argentina.  I wonder what kind of success this 21st century Francis will have with the Muslim world?  Will he be “won over” like Francis of Assisi or will he confront?  The persecuted Christian minorities in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, are in dire need of a strong advocate.  I hope Pope Francis can be that man.