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the Independent: better Pope to Iraq than warplanes

The following column by Andreas Whittan Smith was in today's Independent.
He makes the nice point that Abraham, in whose steps the Pope wishes to
follow, plays an important role in Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

Colin Rowat
Coordinator, Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq

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[The Independent 20 September 1999  Andreas Whittan Smith]

`How dare our government suggest to a pilgrim Pope that he shouldn't
follow in the footsteps of Abraham'

WHEN I read last week that the British and American governments were
trying to persuade Pope John Paul II to cancel his plans to visit the
ancient city of Ur, birthplace of Abraham in southern Iraq, I felt a pang
of anger.  How dare the two governments suggest to a pilgrim Pope that he
should not follow in the footsteps of Abraham, going on to visit Egypt,
where Abraham lived in exile, and Israel - "the land that I will show

The objections are the standard usage of Anglo-American diplomacy. The
Pope's arrival will bring great comfort to the Iraqi government. Saddam
Hussein will inevitably greet him; pictures of the meeting will go round
the world.

More seriously for the superpower and its faithful ally, the accompanying
journalists will report the misery that nine years of sanctions have
inflicted upon the population. This will weaken public support for
continued sanctions and the enforcement of two no-fly zones. Indeed, daily
sorties are flown over Ur. The equation is simple: we lose, Saddam gains.

Let us leave such considerations to one side for the moment, and consider
the Pope's plans. The ruins of the great Mesopotamian city of Ur of the
Chaldees are an unusual starting-point for pilgrims. Why does this old,
frail, but resolute Pope, who must believe that he is near the end of his
ministry, fix his attention now upon Abraham? The first Book of the Bible,
Genesis, tells us that Abraham and his family had migrated from Ur and
settled in Haran, 500 miles to the north west, when God told him to "go
from your country... to the land that I will show you. I will make you a
great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great." It was an
arduous undertaking, requiring immense faith. 

The Promised Land was infertile and populated by Canaanites; his wife,
Sarah, hadn't been able to have children. Eventually, as Mesopotamian law
allowed, she let him have a child by a servant girl, Hagar. But then,
miraculously as it must have seemed, Sarah became pregnant and gave birth
to a boy, Isaac. However, a few years later came the terrible command from
God: "take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the
land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the
mountains that I shall show you".

In Karen Armstrong's commentary on the Book of Genesis, In the Beginning,
she sees Abraham as a man of vision who had the imagination to look
beneath the unpromising surface of events. The verb "to see" recurs
constantly in the Abraham story; he was a man, she writes, who "had learnt
to look with the inner eye of the soul".

Is it this which attracts Pope John Paul II to Abraham? 

There is a second feature of the biblical account which suddenly appears
relevant. Abraham and Hagar's child was also a boy, Ishmael. But once
Sarah's own child had arrived, she insisted that Hagar and Ishmael be sent
away. God commanded Abraham to obey, but pledged that Ishmael would also
be the father of a great nation. Hagar went off into the desert with
Ishmael. They survived. Ishmael became a mighty archer and, according to
tradition, the father of the Arab peoples. In his person, therefore,
Abraham brings together the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism,
Christianity and Islam. Is the Pope beginning to plan how to secure closer
relations between the three faiths? 

But even the Christians of Iraq - there are one million out of a
population of 17 million - are divided. There is the pitiful remnant of
the Church of the oldest surviving Christian heresy, the Nestorians or
Assyrians, whose expulsion dates back to 431. They stressed the humanity
of Christ and refused to recognise Mary as the Mother of God. After
flourishing mightily for 1,000 years, the Nestorians have since suffered a
series of reverses, not least Rome's success in the 17th century in
attracting a substantial number of them back into its fold with the offer
of rite - that is, the privilege of retaining ecclesiastical autonomy,
local liturgies and canon law, in exchange for recognising the supremacy
of the Pope and altering their creed. It is this body, the Chaldean
Catholic Church, which has invited the Pope to Iraq.

If his visit to this church takes place, as seems likely, the Pope will
have something to gain as well as to impart. For these old Christian
communities of the East have retained what many suppose to be the
atmosphere of the Early Church. There is no kneeling; supplicants assume
the ancient upright pose, with arms half-extended and palms held upwards,
before addressing the Almighty. The Pope's visit will bring great solace
and permanently strengthen the community.

This explanation of the Pope's "ardent" wish to make the pilgrimage, if it
is correct, could gain only grudging respect from the State Department and
the Foreign Office. Whatever Robin Cook may say about ethical foreign
policy, the officials conduct realpolitik. But these diplomats should at
least remember Cuba. The Pope went to the island early last year. He
naturally had talks with President Castro. And there, visibly, the Pope's
moral authority prevailed.

Remember also Poland, where John Paul II strengthened the forces opposed
to the Communist government of his homeland.

Frankly I don't believe that Saddam Hussein will be impressed by his
visitor.  But perhaps others in the dictator's circle will be. Tariq Aziz,
the deputy prime minister, who is a Christian, may feel the Pope's moral
force. However it turns out, I would rather see the Pope in Baghdad than
American and British warplanes ceaselessly patrolling the skies above. 

Message to the State Department and Foreign Office: back off!

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