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Iraq: Pope Joins Diplomatic Efforts As War Looms

  • Antoine Blua

Amid mounting fears of a possible U.S.-led war in Iraq, the Vatican has joined diplomatic efforts to stave off a military conflict. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz arrived today in Rome for talks tomorrow with Pope John Paul II, an outspoken opponent of the war. A papal envoy is also in Iraq this week for talks with officials aimed at averting a conflict.

Prague, 13 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Vatican envoy Cardinal Roger Etchegaray this week traveled to Baghdad, where he held talks yesterday with top Iraqi officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan.

After the meeting, the cardinal told journalists that Iraq deserves credit for agreeing to the return of United Nations weapons inspectors last November. Now, he said, ample time is needed to allow what he called the Security Council's "peace dynamic" to become effective.

Etchegaray also said he hoped to meet with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to deliver a message from the pope calling for Baghdad's unconditional cooperation with weapons inspectors. The meeting has not yet been finalized.

Celebrating Mass yesterday at Baghdad's St. Joseph's Chaldean Church -- a Christian church that recognizes the authority of the pope -- Etchegaray made an appeal for peace. "Salam, dear friends. The anguish you are living in keeps growing. Pray here today for peace in Iraq and the Near East. Amen," Etchegaray said.

Etchegaray's visit, due to end this weekend, comes amid a massive buildup of U.S. and British troops in the Persian Gulf. The buildup is in preparation for possible military action to topple Hussein should he fail to convince the international community that he has voluntarily disarmed his country.

Baghdad steadfastly denies it possesses weapons of mass destruction, saying United Nations arms inspectors will eventually conclude that Iraq is telling the truth.

Earlier this week in Baghdad, Etchegaray told reporters that war was the "worst solution" to the current weapons crisis. "With emotion, with affection, I remember the Iraqi populations who have suffered so much and, as the pope recently said, who are so exhausted after more than 12 years of embargo. One has to have hope even when there is no hope, even under the most difficult conditions. Blessed be those who work in favor of peace," Etchegaray said.

As Etchegaray continues his diplomatic efforts in Baghdad, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Aziz traveled today to Rome. Aziz is due to meet with Pope John Paul II tomorrow, the same day UN weapons inspectors are to present to the Security Council what could be a decisive report on the state of Iraqi cooperation.

Aziz is also due to meet with opposition politicians who have condemned Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's support for the U.S. position on Iraq. On 15 February, Aziz, who is himself a member of the Chaldean Church, will travel to Assisi for peace prayers with Franciscan monks.

John Allen is the Vatican correspondent for "The National Catholic Reporter," the leading U.S. Catholic weekly. He told RFE/RL that the pope, who is scheduled to meet UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan next week, has become increasingly involved in efforts to avert a U.S.-led attack on Iraq. The pontiff was a strong critic of the 1991 Gulf War and has repeatedly denounced UN sanctions against Iraq in the years since. "[The pope and the Vatican are] opposed to a war, and that has been increasingly clear in recent weeks. The pope has himself been speaking on an almost daily basis, praying for peace and insisting that war is not inevitable, that war would be a defeat for humanity. A stream of Vatican officials have taken an increasingly strong public position that is critical of the idea of a so-called preventive war," Allen said.

Archbishop Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, recently denounced the idea of a preventive war as a "war of aggression" that does not come under the definition of a "just war." Martino said the latest evidence on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction presented to the Security Council last week by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was both unconvincing and vague.

Earlier, an Italian magazine controlled by the Vatican, "Civilita Cattolica," suggested the war was motivated in part by economic reasons. It also warned that the war would foment terrorism and destabilize the Middle East.

Allen pointed out that the Vatican does not strictly adhere to a pacifist stance. It approved of the war in Kosovo as an attempt to protect civilian populations who were being brutalized. But in the case of Iraq, Allen said, Vatican officials believe that alternative options to war have not yet been exhausted. "For example, they would argue: 'Let's give the weapons inspections a longer time to work. We have today a new pledge from the Iraqis to cooperate with the inspections.' They would say, 'Let's work through the international community, let's work through the Security Council rather than through what President [George W.] Bush in the United States is calling the coalition of the willing,'" Allen said.

Another argument from the Vatican, Allen noted, is that a U.S.-led strike against Iraq would have disastrous consequences for the Middle East and the relationship between Christians and Muslims. The Vatican also says any war the United States conducts outside UN parameters will substantially weaken the international laws the Holy See has used as a tool for promoting religious freedom, especially in countries with Christians minorities.

George Weigel is a Catholic theologian and a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. He takes issue with what he calls the politically motivated judgments of many Catholic religious leaders who openly oppose the war. "The pope's commentary, which has been the most intelligent on this, has simply pressed for every effort to be made to achieve a diplomatic resolution of the conflict. Others go beyond that and suggest that this is American imperialism, that this is a war for oil, that we are not yet at last resort, that Saddam Hussein can be cajoled into coming around. None of this makes very much sense at all," Weigel said.

Weigel said the Holy See's diplomatic initiatives should aim not only at preventing a U.S.-led military campaign but also at getting Saddam Hussein to disarm his country.

Weigel believes the Bush administration has made every possible effort to find a nonmilitary solution to the crisis. He said that what he calls "moral realism" suggests that the use of proportionate and discriminate force can be morally justified when all other means have failed.

Hussein, he added, should not be allowed to defy the "manifest will" of the international community by refusing to disarm. If he does, Weigel said, the causes of international law and world order will suffer a "terrible blow." "A forcible intervention in Iraq to enforce the UN resolutions requiring the disarmament of Iraq, which Iraq has resisted for 12 years, satisfies the "just war" criterion of just cause. We are clearly at last resort in that no possible diplomatic solution to this situation seems [to be] at hand," Weigel said.

Allen doubts the opposition of the Vatican will be enough to quell the Bush administration's push for war. But the papacy does have an enormous capacity to affect public opinion. A recent invitation by the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Michael Novak, a well-known Catholic intellectual in the United States, provides some indication that the U.S. administration is concerned about the Vatican's popular influence, Allen said.

Speaking on 10 February, Novak pleaded with the Vatican to consider Baghdad's standoff with UN weapons inspectors cause for a "just war." He told an audience of diplomats and Vatican officials that under the Catholic doctrine of "just war," a case for a limited war to bring about a regime change in Iraq was "as a last resort morally justifiable." He added that, "The aim of a just war is the blocking of great evil, the restoration of peace, and the defense of minimum conditions of justice and world order."

Both Catholic and non-Catholic religious leaders have been outspoken in their opposition to the war, including in the United States, where a majority of the population supports an attack on Iraq. Last month, a 13-member delegation of the U.S. National Council of Churches visited Iraq. The head of the delegation, Bob Edgar, told reporters that preemptive war is "immoral and illegal," "theologically illegitimate," and "profoundly violates" Christian beliefs and religious principles. The delegation also pleaded for an easing of UN sanctions in force since Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, saying they had had a "devastating impact" on the Iraqi people.

(Catherine Monnet of Radio France International contributed to this report.)