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Pope sparks controversy with plan to visit Iraq

Pope sparks controversy with plan to visit Iraq
                                 Mideast tour has political implications

                                 JOHN BARBER
                                 The Globe and Mail
                                 Friday, August 27, 1999

                                 He's travelled almost everywhere in his 21
                                 years as Pope, but he has not been to the heart
                                 of Christendom.

                                 That appears set to change in early December,
                                 when Pope John Paul II celebrates the dawn of
                                 the year 2000 with an audacious pilgrimage to
                                 the Middle East -- including a visit to Iraq that
                                 involves a meeting with Saddam Hussein and a
                                 tour of the ancient town of Ur, birthplace of
                                 the biblical patriarch Abraham.

                                 The trip likely will hit the high spots --
                                 Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Damascus,
                                 even the mountain in the Egyptian Sinai where
                                 Moses received the Ten Commandments.

                                 Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls
                                 cautioned that while the Pope's desire to visit
                                 the Middle East is well known, the final
                                 arrangements are yet to be worked out.

                                 But not surprisingly, the expected trip is
                                 causing waves in a region of the world where
                                 modern animosity runs as deep as ancient
                                 religious fervour.

                                 Indeed, the Pope's trip to Iraq still requires
                                 United Nations authorization.
                                 That is because of an air embargo in force
                                 since shortly before the 1991 war in the
                                 Persian Gulf and the more recent imposition of
                                 a no-fly zone in southern Iraq enforced by
                                 U.S. and British fighter jets.

                                 Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Raphael Bidawid,
                                 who invited the Pope to visit Iraq in the spring,
                                 said yesterday that the final touches are now
                                 being put on the itinerary.

                                 "This will be a blessing from heaven and a
                                 blessing for the Iraqis, particularly because
                                 they have been under severe sanctions for nine
                                 years and we hope it will be the start of a
                                 solution," he said.

                                 Ur, which is 350 kilometres south of Baghdad
                                 in southern Iraq, is one of the first cities in the
                                 world -- part of the ancient country of
                                 Mesopotamia between the valleys of the Tigris
                                 and Euphrates Rivers. In the Book of Genesis,
                                 God tells Abraham to leave Ur, his hometown,
                                 "and go to a country I will show you. I shall
                                 make you a great nation."

                                 The Pope has repeatedly expressed a desire to
                                 follow in the footsteps of Abraham, "our father
                                 in faith par excellence," on his journey from
                                 Mesopotamia to the promised land of Canaan,
                                 between the River Jordan and the
                                 Mediterranean Sea, site of present-day Israel.

                                 While in Iraq, the pontiff will also make a
                                 pastoral visit to the Christians of the Chaldean
                                 Church, who have lived in the country since
                                 the days of St. Peter.

                                 For his part, the Chaldean patriarch expressed
                                 hope that John Paul would attend to more
                                 secular business, using the occasion to repeat
                                 the Vatican's call for ending UN economic
                                 sanctions. Because of the Pope's well-known
                                 views on the matter, the patriarch said, "the
                                 Americans and the Israelis are trying hard to
                                 prevent the pilgrimage."

                                 Still, Israel has been no less anxious than Iraq
                                 to have the Pope visit. Israel and the Vatican
                                 had a bumpy relationship for decades after the
                                 country's founding in 1948 -- but much of that
                                 has dissipated in recent years as John Paul
                                 made repeated efforts to reach out to Jews
                                 worldwide and the Vatican officially
                                 recognized Israel.

                                 The Jewish state is expecting a wave of
                                 Christian tourists in celebration of 2000, and
                                 expects that the Pope's tour will increase
                                 interest in the Holy Land. Likewise, the
                                 Roman Catholic pontiff's trip to Bethlehem --
                                 the birthplace of Jesus -- is seen by the
                                 Palestinian Authority, which now controls the
                                 city, as a major step forward in its quest for
                                 international recognition.

                                 The Pope himself is trying to play down
                                 political implications. Last month, he defended
                                 his intentions "as an exclusively religious
                                 pilgrimage in its nature and purpose," adding
                                 he "would be saddened if anyone were to
                                 attach other meanings to this plan of mine."

                                 But the Pope's travels are never exclusively
                                 religious nor exclusively political, said Vatican
                                 expert Michael Higgins, president of St.
                                 Jerome's University at the University of
                                 Waterloo. "When the Pope goes anywhere, it
                                 is always a pastoral visit. But a pastoral visit
                                 always has social and political undertones. . . .
                                 It's a thin line to walk and he's a political
                                 animal to boot."

                                 Concern that John Paul's visit will boost Mr.
                                 Hussein's legitimacy centres on his
                                 well-known objections to economic sanctions
                                 imposed on Iraq by the United Nations
                                 following the 1991 conflict. John Paul spoke
                                 adamantly against the war at the time and
                                 denounced the more recent bombing campaign
                                 as "aggression."

                                 A repetition of such opinions while within Iraq
                                 would be politically explosive and is highly
                                 unlikely, according to Professor Tom Langan
                                 of the University of Toronto, president of the
                                 Catholic Civil Rights League and co-chair of
                                 Canadian Professors for Peace in the Middle
                                 East. "I am sure that [the Pope] would not
                                 want to go there if it exacerbated divisions," he
                                 said, adding that the visit will be "primarily
                                 and sincerely, and very personally, religious.
                                 It really is a pilgrimage on a unique date."

                                 As a result, the pontiff will likely speak "in
                                 universalistic terms" during his tour of the
                                 region and steer clear of direct statements that
                                 speak to religious and political tensions, Prof.
                                 Langan said. He will visit in the role of St.
                                 Peter, "as the great unifier of all mankind, not
                                 just Christians."

                                 Even so, he added, "the Pope has given some
                                 indication of not being totally naive

                                 Indeed, John Paul's reputation as a political
                                 giant killer is one key reason that his
                                 pilgrimage has attracted such notice.

                                 His passionate support for the Solidarity
                                 movement in Poland is widely believed to have
                                 hastened the demise of Communism
                                 worldwide. Earlier visits to notorious tyrants
                                 have also produced unexpected results: Haiti's
                                 Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier fell within
                                 weeks of a papal visit, and a trip to the
                                 Philippines is believed to have hastened the fall
                                 of President Ferdinand Marcos.

                                 Regarding the Middle East, Prof. Langan said:
                                 "If he thought it could help bring real peace the
                                 temptation would be overwhelming and he
                                 would speak out. But he's smart enough to
                                 know this is a very different situation than
                                 when he was backing Solidarity and taking on
                                 communism. That was a no-lose situation. . . .
                                 This is not."

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