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Pope trip to Iraq stirs opposition, concerns

2 September, 1999 000086.html

FOCUS-Pope trip to Iraq stirs opposition, concerns

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY, Sept 2 - Opposition to Pope John Paul's possible trip to Iraq widened on Thursday when Iraqi dissident groups joined the United States and Jewish leaders in expressing concern about the visit.

In the past few weeks concerns have grown about the probability that the Pontiff would be greeted by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during a religious pilgrimage to Ur, birthplace of Biblical patriarch Abraham.

"It is our wish that Your Holiness not visit Iraq while it is under the rule of a despot with the blood of innocent people on his hands," the group of 19 organisations representing opponents of Saddam said in an open letter to the Pope.

The letter was signed by 28 people and sent to news organisations from London.

It accused Saddam of "blatant" human rights violations, including "continuing mass executions, brutal torture, forcible 'disappearance' of thousands of citizens, crimes of genocide with chemical weapons against the Kurdish people...."

The letter referred to a March report by the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Iraq, which said Saddam's government had one of the worst human rights records in any country since the end of World War Two.

Iraq rejected the report as biased. The Iraqi patriarch of the Chaldean church said in an interview to be published in France on Friday that the Vatican and Baghdad would announce next week that the Pope would visit Iraq, probably before Christmas.

Raphael Bidawid, patriarch of Babylon in the eastern rite church linked to Roman Catholicism, told the French Catholic daily La Croix that planning for the visit was still going on. "There will certainly be a statement by both sides next week," he said according to a text released in advance. "My feeling is that the visit will take place before Christmas."

The trip to Iraq is expected to be coupled with a stop near Egypt's Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. The 79-year old Pope has said he wants to make several trips to the Middle East to retrace Old and New Testament events as part of celebrations to herald Christianity's third millennium.

The Iraqi opposition groups said while they understood the Pope's desire "to visit holy sites in our homeland", they were concerned about a possible meeting with Saddam. "This regime, whose bloody nature is very well known to us, will not hesitate to resort to duplicity and lies to cover up its barbaric crimes against our people," the letter said.

A senior Vatican source said he believed a possible meeting between the Pope and Saddam would give the Pontiff a chance to air his views about human rights. "Experience shows that in the past the Pope's trips to even the most controversial places and meetings with even the most controversial leaders have in the end helped to alleviate the sufferings of the people," the source said.

Controversial leaders that the Pope has encountered on past trips and lectured about human rights included Cuba's Fidel Castro and Haiti's former President Jean-Claude Duvalier. Iraq is eager to welcome the Pope because he has criticised U.N. sanctions.

U.S. State Department spokesman James Foley said Washington had expressed concern to the Vatican about Iraq manipulating the trip for political purposes. The World Jewish Congress said it hoped the Pope could be persuaded not to meet Saddam.

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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