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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
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
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
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
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
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
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."