Page 1, 17th December 1999

17th December 1999
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Page 1, 17th December 1999 — Vatican 'unconvinced' as Iraq calls off visit

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Organisations: United Nations
Locations: Ur, Baghdad


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Vatican 'unconvinced' as Iraq calls off visit

WHILE Britain, the US and Israel are certain to be relieved, the Vatican was said to be "saddened and embittered" by Iraq's abrupt cancellation of the papal visit to Ur and Baghdad early next year, writes Bruce Johnston.

The trip "in Abraham's footsteps", which was meant to have come at the start of a series of Holy Land pilgrimages, was known to have been particularly dear to the Pope, who had planned it initially for this month. But the decision by Baghdad — in which it said at the weekend that the Pope would not be able to visit because of the UNimposed no-fly zone — has also meant that contacts which had been forged over the past year had now "gone up in smoke".

After a papal delegation to Baghdad found itself in what one source called a "surreal situation" — in which it was fobbed off with vague promises after a meeting with the Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz and a reconnaissance trip to Ur, in the no-fly zone, failed to materialise — the Vatican was told that the "abnormal conditions" in Iraq made the papal trip to Ur impossible. The Vatican is said to be completely unconvinced by Baghdad, since as far back as October the UN had told the Vatican that the Pope would be able to fly to Baghdad by plane, and from there to Ur by helicopter. One opinion in the Vatican, expressed by a source close to the Pope, is that Saddam decided to close the door on the Pope when he realised that he would be unable to use his visit as much for his own propaganda purposes as he would have liked. "It's clear that dictator wanted greater political visibility than the Vatican was willing to concede," the source said. "But on the other hand it is no secret that the Pope would now have missed the chance to make an appeal for an end to the embargo.

"The ultimate loser is the Iraqi people."

But according to others, Saddam scuppered the papal visit to appease Islamic fundamentalists against a celebration of the "Jew Abraham".

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