Page 1, 19th June 1998

19th June 1998
Page 1
Page 1, 19th June 1998 — Pope poised for summit with Saddam

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Pope poised for summit with Saddam

Vatican demands end to UN embargo

BY BRUCE JOIINs-i-oN IN ROME AND GREG WATTS IN BACiI4 DAD THE POPE is to visit Iraq next year, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray revealed to delegates at a religious conference in Baghdad this week. Vatican watchers believe John Paul II could even hold talks with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein if the visit goes ahead.

Iraq's Chaldean Catholics account for 10 per cent of the country's 14 million population. The Vatican now has diplomatic ties with Baghdad, and its Papal Nuncio, Mgr Giuseppe I 277arotto, is said to be close to Saddam Hussein.

"The Pope is on the road to your city," Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, the Papal Envoy, told a packed St Joseph's church in Baghdad. "Will you be happy to see him?" A thunderous applause came in reply.

Dates and places are understood to have already been pencilled in for the papal visit, which besides Ur, the ancient site identified in the Bible as the birthplace of Abraham, is to include Koche, the site of the oldest Christian temple in Mesopotamia, and Baghdad, where the Pope will celebrate Mass in a football stadium.

It is still undecided whether the trip should take place in February or October. Both months have been chosen as options "to avoid the heat", according to the country's Christian Patriarch, Raphael Bidawid.

Iraq fits well into the Vatican's new foreign policy, which began recently to diverge from and therefore have a greater influence on the foreign policy of the United States, as the Pope's visit to Cuba has shown. The Vatican has also demonstrated that in the run-up to the Millennium in which the Pope is setting so much in store, it is keen to court friends and extend the Church's influence in the Middle East and Arab world. Last year the Vatican forged diplomatic ties with Tripoli, upsetting Washington.

The Holy See has justified its friendliness with the Libyans and Iraqis by saying it is concerned with the rights of Christian minorities living in their countries. But dipIo

mats say the improvement of relations between the Vatican and such regimes also serves to "burnish" its and the Pope's own image in the Middle East.

Equally important is the embargo against Iraq. In the Pope's eyes, the only real effect embargoes have is to increase the suffering of the country's weak and poor. Moves to end the embargoes against different countries have now become a key factor in Vatican foreign policy.

In his homily in Baghdad, Cardinal Etchegaray spoke of the "injustice" of the "economic weapon" of sanctions that hurt civilians, especially children. He also had talks with Saddam's deputy Tariq Aziz, and told him that the Church could play "a big role" in freeing his country from the embargo.

Commenting on a Unicef report that more than one in three Iraqi children below the age of 5 were now suffering from malnutrition, the Papal Nuncio, Mgr Lazzarotto, described the situation as "a tragedy". He said: "The world must be told."

Since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 it has been under severe sanctions from the United Nations.

Essential food, medicine and equipment are in short supply, Continued on Page 2

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