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Iraq: Pope's Planned Mideast Trip Stirs Controversy

Pope John Paul II's plan to make a pilgrimage to Biblical holy places in the Middle East is stirring controversy because of the possibility it could include a visit to Iraq. But as RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, underneath all the controversy the question of whether the pope will actually go to Iraq remains as open as ever.

Prague, 10 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Like many controversies, the one surrounding Pope John Paul II's reported plans to visit a Biblical holy site in Iraq this year is based on a few facts and much speculation.

Here are the facts: The Vatican has said that the 79-year-old pontiff wants to make several trips to the Middle East to visit holy sites as he celebrates the start of the third Christian millennium. Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro Valls told reporters recently in Rome that the Pope has a "strong wish" to undertake journeys to the Middle East that would include Mount Sinai in Egypt, Nazareth and Jerusalem in Israel, and Bethlehem in the Palestinian territories, as well as sites in Syria.

The Vatican has also said the Pope is interested in traveling to Iraq to visit the site of the ancient city of Ur, which is believed to be the home of Abraham --a prophet revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. But Navarro Valls has steadfastly refused to confirm if and when such any of these trips might actually take place.

So far, most news regarding any papal trip to Iraq has come from the head of Iraq's Christian community, Raphael Bidawid. As patriarch of the Chaldean Church, a Christian community dating back to the first century of the Christian era, he represents the great majority of Iraq's some 600,000 Christians.

Bidawid announced two weeks ago that the Vatican has told him the Pontiff would visit Iraq in the first week of December and is likely to meet with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The Chaldean leader also said that the Pope would fly into Baghdad before traveling by helicopter to Ur, some 220 kilometers southeast of the Iraqi capital. The flight to Iraq would require special exemptions from the United Nations, which maintains an embargo or air travel to the country.

Bidawid's statements, plus the Vatican's reluctance to speak in detail of the Pope's plans, have fueled speculation over whether the Pope will, in fact, go to Iraq at all --and, if he does, what political problems such a trip could create. The controversy has already evoked strong responses from the U.S. Government and from Iraqi opposition groups, which fear any papal trip would be used by Saddam Hussein to try to weaken international efforts to isolate his regime.

The U.S. said last week that it has grave misgivings about the reported papal trip to Iraq. State Department spokesman James Foley said Washington had expressed concern to the Vatican that Iraq might manipulate the visit for its own political ends.

Iraqi opposition groups have voiced similar worries. A spokesman for one group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, told Radio Free Iraq today that if the Pope goes he must guard against being used politically by the Iraqi regime. Spokesman Bayan Jabir talked by telephone from Beirut:

"If the Pope has decided he wants to go to Iraq there is no reason for him to cancel his visit. But he must play a humanitarian role in Iraq and not allow the Iraqi regime to use him to gain political advantages."

A group of 19 organizations representing opponents of the Iraqi regime addressed an open letter to the Pope last week. They said that they understand the pontiff's desire to visit holy sites in Iraq. but were concerned by the possibility he might meet with Saddam.

The letter warned that Saddam was likely to try to use any Papal visit to break out of the isolation imposed on his regime by the international community since Baghdad invaded Kuwait in 1990. The invasion resulted in the Gulf War of 1991 in which an international coalition pushed Iraqi troops out of the emirate. Today, Baghdad remains under economic sanctions which cannot be lifted until UN arms inspectors certify Iraq has no more weapons of mass destruction with which to threaten its neighbors.

The Vatican has said that any papal visits to the Middle East would be solely religious and spiritual in character. But signs that Baghdad might indeed see political value in hosting the Pope already have began to emerge.

The official Iraqi news agency INA reported this week that Baghdad has dispatched a team of experts to inspect the reputed house of Abraham in Ur and to give cost estimates for renovating it.

The archaeological site of Ur, which is situated in a desert region, comprises temples, palaces and royal tombs which attest to the city's importance at the peak of its importance in about 4,000 BC. One of its landmarks is the remains of a towering ziggurat, a three-tiered edifice standing more than 17 meters high.

As the Iraqi government apparently prepares for a papal visit, other groups have called on the Pope to intervene on their behalf should he meet with Saddam.

Families of Kuwaiti prisoners of war called last week for the pontiff to "act as a messenger of peace and love to free the Kuwaitis detained in Iraqi prisoners." Kuwait has repeatedly asked Baghdad for information regarding the fate of some 600 of its nationals missing since Iraq's 1990 invasion, but Baghdad has said it has lost trace of any Kuwaiti prisoners it took at the time.

The question of whether the Pope would agree to meet Saddam and how he would conduct any such meeting remain subjects for further speculation. In the past, the Pope has always met with heads of state on his travels. Controversial figures with whom he has met include Cuba's Fidel Castro and Haiti's former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. But the meetings were not always pleasant for his hosts. The pontiff used both visits to lecture them extensively on human rights.

Meanwhile, the papal ambassador's office in Tiblisi said on Wednesday that the Pope will travel to Georgia in November. The pope is expected to meet with the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilijs II, as part of efforts to bridge divides between the eastern and western branches of the Christian Church.