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Trampling holy ground to reach for stars.

Cardinal Rosalio Lara, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Government of the Vatican City-State, was supposed to attend the dedication of the new Vatican Observatory telescope atop Mount Graham in southeastern Arizona last month. But the Apache Survival Coalition had threatened to disrupt the ceremony, so Lara sent his speech to Arizona and stayed in Rome.

Lara's text characterized the telescope as "a real symbol of the church's dialogue with the world with its diversity of concerns." We have no quarrel with that. It is healthy for the Vatican to be involved in science. That involvement may have had something to do with Rome's renewed sense of science as an enhancement of faith.

But Lara also applauded the recent decision of the San Carlos Apache tribal council to remain neutral on the University of Arizona's controversial Mount Graham International Observatory project. He called the decision "consoling and hopefully a prelude to deepening an even more friendly dialogue and relationship."

That remark is at best indicative of the skewed information and bad advice the Vatican has been getting on Mount Graham project. Traditional Apache still see the observatory as a desecration of sacred land. Five of the 11 council members were absent when the vote was taken. The full council had voted to oppose the project only two weeks before.

Furthermore, tribal councils are a white man's creation, used to maintain white control. The UA is still using the San Carlos council that way. Significantly, the only Apache UA could muster for the ceremony was a former council chairman under federal indictment for embezzling tribal funds.

From the beginning, the university has been convincing and deceitful in its rush to push the project through. An internal report leaked last summer revealed that UA had known for years what observatory opponents had long been saying -- that the Mount Graham site was astronomically inferior. It concealed that knowledge and pushed ahead under false pretenses, no matter what the environmental or cultural consequences, primarily because it wanted the power and prestige that comes with sponsoring an international observatory.

Now UA wants to move the site of its giant binocular telescope a quarter mile west, where it claims viewing conditions would be better. The move would cause even more environmental damage and it should not be allowed.

Roger Lynds of Tucson's National Optical Astronomy Observatories coauthored a 1984 report ranking potential sites for a large telescope. Mount Graham was 38th out of the 56 sites studied.

UA has had "to slide around the environmental stuff and slide to get around the cultural stuff," Lynds told The Arizona Republic. "What has happened is all of astronomy has gotten a bad name for all of this in the minds of a lot of people."

That is the kind of sleazy operation the Vatican Observatory embraced, largely because UA gave it a free 1.8 meter telescope mirror, prototype of a new spin-casting technique UA developed with U.S. Air Force Weapons Laboratory funding.

Now the Vatican has its new telescope and it may well be the source of new discoveries in the universe. We hope so. But the Mount Graham project, with its environmental destruction and cultural desecration, should be a source of embarrassment and shame.
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Title Annotation:Vatican Observatory controversy
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Oct 8, 1993
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