Pope to meet Saddam in the autumn
By Bruce Johnston in Rome THE POPE is to travel to Iraq "in the footsteps of Abraham" in the autumn, probably in September, Vatican sources said this week.
The trip, the details of which are still to be confirmed, would be mainly to the ancient city of Ur, which the Bible identifies as the birthplace of Abraham, in southern Mesopotamia, and to other sites where many of the roots of Christianity lie.
The Pope is also likely to meet Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, and, while this is certain to infuriate the governments of Britain and the United States, the Holy See will hope to repeat the diplomatic successes of his visits to Cuba and Nigeria last year.
Sources said that the decision concerning the general outline of the visit followed high-level meetings last week between the Pope, members of the Curia and a delegation from Baghdad of Chaldean Catholic and Muslim leaders, led by the Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid.
Chaldean, or indigenous, Catholics, account for just over one per cent of Iraq's 20.5 million population. The Vatican has full diplomatic ties with Baghdad, with whose regime the papal nuncio, Mgr Giuseppe Lazzarotto, is said to be on excellent terms.
As a result of his stand against the Gulf War and the US-led UN embargo against Iraq, the Pope is now a popular figure in Baghdad. He is convinced that embargoes hurt only civilians, especially children, and do little to alleviate suffering among weak and poor civilians.
The Vatican's condemnation of the UN embargo of Iraq was spelled out last year by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, the Holy See's Foreign Minister, who represented the Pope at a religious conference in Baghdad last year. Speaking on behalf of the Pope, he said: "The embargo, by its perverse and uncontrollable effects, is destroying the soul of the Iraqi people, who desperately see their cultural and moral patrimony breaking down."
• John Paul II begins a 13day pastoral visit to Poland next week. It will be his seventh and longest visit to his homeland during his 20year pontificate, writes Luke Coppen .
The trip will begin on June 5 in the dockyards of Gdansk, where the Solidarity movement confronted Poland's Communist government and precipitated the downfall of the Iron Curtain.
On June 11, he will visit to Warsaw, where he will lead prayers for the victims of the Second World War, the Holocaust and Stalin's mass deportation programme. Later he will meet President Aleksander Kwasniewski and, for the first time in Polish history, deliver a speech to the Sejm (Parliament). On June 13, he will proclaim 100 Polish victims of the Nazis martyrs and lead prayers for the Polish victims of the 1920 war with Russia.
The Pope will then travel to Cracow, where he was archbishop to lead the 1000th anniversary celebrations of the archdiocese. After a brief visit to the Tatra mountains, he will visit the grave of his parents and friends from his home town of Wadowice.