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Monday, 17 February, 2003, 18:03 GMT
Pope pins hopes on diplomacy
The Pope
The Pope wants dialogue not war

The Pope's view of war is straightforward: it is always a defeat for humanity.

And with conflict in Iraq coming ever closer, John Paul II is now trying to exert his influence on the diplomatic stage.

He has sent a special envoy to Baghdad. Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, an 80-year-old Frenchman, has long been one of the Pope's most trusted advisers.

Officially retired, he used to head the Vatican's department for Justice and Peace, and is an expert on the world's trouble spots.

According to the Vatican, the visit is intended "to help the Iraqi authorities to seriously reflect on their commitment to effective international co-operation".


The pace of Vatican diplomacy increased with the visit to Rome last week of Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz.

The Pope
The Pope believes in the power of prayer
Mr Aziz, a Christian, was given the kind of reception normally reserved for heads of state, an indication of the importance attached to his meeting with the Pope.

The 82-year-old pontiff has been deeply troubled by world events since 11 September 2001.

Despite his frailty, he has become increasingly involved in diplomatic efforts to avert war.

He has urged the world not to resign itself to war, and is calling for global prayers for peace.

One of the themes of his papacy has been to reach out to other faiths, including Islam, in an effort to end centuries of hostility and suspicion.

On a visit to Syria, just four months before the attacks on America, John Paul II became the first pope to set foot in a mosque.

As a symbolic gesture of reconciliation, it was seen as one of the most significant acts of a long papacy.

The present crisis may not be about religion, but the Pope is alarmed about "the winds of war" and the consequences for a world he says is "tempted by hatred and violence".

A just war?

The Vatican believes that military action against Iraq would inflict further suffering on a population that has endured an economic embargo since 1990.

Roger Etchegaray
The papal envoy to Iraq, Roger Etchegaray
At the heart of the present disagreement between Washington and the Vatican is the issue of what constitutes a "just" war.

According to Christian teaching, military action can only be justified when all other means of resolving conflict have been exhausted, and the force used is proportionate.

The US and British governments believe the threat posed by Iraq is real. But the Vatican is alarmed about the number of Iraqi civilians who may be killed, and the possibility it will provoke further acts of terrorism.

Relations between the Vatican and Washington were strained in 1991 when the Pope refused to state unequivocally that military action against Iraq amounted to a just war.

After the events of 11 September 2001, he said he would understand if the United States used force to defend its citizens against further attacks.

But he later expressed "anxiety and concern" over air strikes on Afghanistan.


There was also friction over a plan for the Pope to visit Iraq during his millennium tour of the Holy Land.

Iraqi boy
Iraq has nearly a million Christians
He had wanted to visit the birthplace of the prophet Abraham, but Washington said it would be a propaganda coup for Saddam Hussein.

The visit was later called off when Baghdad said it would be too difficult to organise.

The meeting with Mr Aziz will not be the end of the Vatican's diplomatic efforts. The UN secretary general Kofi Annan is now due to visit John Paul II.

But with the prospects for diplomacy now in serious doubt, the Pope will also be hoping for assistance from another direction.

As leader of a church with a billion members, he is now hoping that the power of prayer will help to avert bloodshed.

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See also:

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