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Iraq: Pope Remembered As Advocate For Peace

Iraq's Christian community mourned the passing of Pope John Paul II on 3 April. In Baghdad, Father Butros Haddad, head of Church of the Virgin Mary, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI): "The pope had many positions on Iraq. He was against the war in Iraq until the last minute, and even after the war. In every place and every international event, and every meeting with presidents and with kings, he was against the war."

Father Haddad recalled to RFI Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel Delly's last meeting with the pope in February. "The pope told him, 'I love Iraq. Iraq has a very big place in my heart.'"

Pope John Paul II was an advocate not just for Iraq's Christians, but for all Iraqis. "All Christians, even the Muslims, will hope for another pope to reestablish peace in this world," Rabban al-Qas, the Chaldean bishop of Amadiyah, told Reuters on 3 April.

The pontiff strongly opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 1991, refusing to declare it a "just war." He was also a vocal opponent of international sanctions, and appealed on several occasions to the international community to not make the "innocent Iraqi people" pay the consequences of a destructive war.

In 1999, the pope expressed a wish to visit the ancient city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham. The visit prompted controversy in the West because Iraq remained under UN sanctions, and the trip was ultimately "postponed" with Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls saying that Saddam Hussein's government claimed it could not guarantee the pope's safety due to the strictly enforced no-fly zones.

The United States opposed the trip on the grounds that any meeting between the pope and then President Hussein might send the wrong message to the world. "We have expressed our concerns in diplomatic channels because of the likelihood the regime in Iraq would attempt to manipulate the visit for political purposes,'' State Department spokesman James Foley said on 27 August 1999.

Pope John Paul continually stressed the need for Muslim-Christian dialogue. "Together with the Muslim countrymen, Iraqi Christians wish to work for unity and harmony. Their Christian faith and values inspire them to cultivate a spirit of mutual respect, with pride in their national identity and concern for the progress of their country. In Iraq, as in the world at large, dialogue between Christians and Muslims is more necessary than ever," he told Iraqi Ambassador to the Vatican Abd al-Amir al-Anbari in an April 2001 letter. The pontiff reiterated the responsibility of governments to "ensure that the equality of all citizens before the law is never violated for religious reasons."

On the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the pope voiced his opposition to the pending war, saying military force in Iraq should be considered "the very last option." Even when war seem inevitable, the pope persisted, dispatching envoys and issuing appeals to world leaders to avert a war.

The Vatican's special envoy to Iraq, Roger Etchegaray, traveled to Baghdad in early February to convey the pontiff's plea to Saddam Hussein that Iraq abide by UN Security Council resolutions and cooperate fully with weapons inspectors. The pope reiterated his plea to then Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz at a 14 February 2003 meeting at the Vatican. In a statement that followed the meeting, the Vatican reiterated the "necessity of faithfully respecting, with concrete commitments, the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, guarantor of international legality."

In a 22 February 2003 meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the pope called on Blair to resolve the crisis through the United Nations. "Special consideration [in the meeting] was given to the humanitarian situation of the Iraqi people, already tried greatly by long years of embargo," the Vatican said in a statement following the meeting.

The pontiff expressed concern the next day that a war in Iraq could stir Muslim animosity against Christians. "For months the international community is living in great apprehension for the danger of a war, which could unsettle the entire Middle East region and aggravate the tensions unfortunately already present in this beginning of the third millennium," he told followers in St. Peter's Square on 23 February.

Just days before the war, Vatican envoy Cardinal Pio Laghi met with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House and stressed the Vatican's position that the crisis could still be resolved through peaceful avenues that existed through international law and institutions. In a 5 March statement on the meeting, Laghi said a decision for war must take into account "the suffering of the people of Iraq and those involved in the military operation, a further instability in the region and a new gulf between Islam and Christianity." Days into the conflict, the pope said the war threatened the whole of humanity.

The pontiff remained concerned over developments in Iraq after the war, and asked President Bush in June 2004 to help normalize the situation in Iraq "as quickly as possible." John Paul called for the "active participation of the international community and, in particular, the United Nations organization, in order to ensure a speedy return of Iraq's sovereignty, in conditions of security for all its people." In August, the Vatican volunteered to mediate the standoff between rebel Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and multinational forces in Al-Najaf.

The pope condemned terrorist attacks against churches in Iraq in 2004, and in a November meeting with interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, said in a statement read by an aide: "I wish to encourage efforts made by the Iraqi people to establish democratic institutions which will be truly representative and committed to defending the rights for all." He called for religious freedom in Iraq in a December meeting with interim Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari.

The pope's legacy of peace was not lost on Iraq's Muslim community. Islamic party politician Muhammad Abd al-Jabbar told RFI on 3 April: "I am sending my condolences to all the Christians in the world and especially the Iraqi Christians on the death of the pope. His death was a big loss for peace in the world."

[For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".]

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