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Thursday, August 26, 1999 Published at 14:27 GMT 15:27 UK

World: Middle East

Storm brewing over Pope's Iraq visit

A visit by the Pope to Iraq could provoke a political storm

By BBC Rome Correspondent David Willey

The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Iraq has said Pope John Paul will visit Baghdad at the beginning of December.

The Pope is planning a series of pilgrimages to holy places in the Middle East.

The Vatican says the Pope's journeys this year and next year are still in the planning stage.

[ image: The US does not want the Pope to meet Saddam Hussein]
The US does not want the Pope to meet Saddam Hussein
But a political storm appears to be brewing over his plans.

The Pope made public earlier this year his strong desire to celebrate the millennium by carrying out a series of visits to holy places in the Middle East associated with the old and new testaments in the Bible.

He wants to begin in the town of Ur in southern Iraq, the birthplace of the old testament prophet, Abraham.

"I want to walk in Abraham's footsteps," the Pope has said.

The problem is that, to do this, he has to fly to the Saddam Hussein airport in Baghdad to continue his journey to Ur by helicopter.

'Wrong message'

The Iraqi leader wants to welcome the Pope to his country in person.

In order to visit Ur, the Pope has to get the permission of the United Nations to waive the air embargo over Iraq which has been in operation since the Gulf War in 1990.

Both the United States and Israel are strongly opposed to the papal visit to Iraq - they feel it will send the wrong message when the Pope is photographed with Saddam Hussein, and they have been trying to dissuade the Pope from visiting Iraq.

But the Pope has been strongly critical of United Nations sanctions against Iraq, arguing that they hurt only civilians, including children and the poor.

Political implications

There are about one million Eastern Rite Catholics in Iraq, a predominantly Muslim country.

Next March, the Pope is planning to continue his pilgrimages with a visit to Jerusalem. He wants also to travel to Nazareth and Bethlehem and then to Damascus, the Syrian capital.

The political implications of such a wide-ranging series of visits to the Middle East are causing problems for the Vatican organisers, in spite of the Pope's avowed intention of avoiding any political interpretation of his pilgrimages to the holy places.

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