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Thursday, September 2, 1999 Published at 18:22 GMT 19:22 UK

World: Middle East

Pope warned against Iraq visit

It is rumoured that the Pope plans to meet Saddam Hussein

A group of Iraqi opposition figures have appealed to the Pope to cancel his planned visit to Iraq in December.

BBC Middle East correspondent Roger Hardy: "The signatories draw the Pope's attention to the human rights abuses in Iraq"
In a letter, the 28 prominent signatories warn that the visit would be exploited for propaganda purposes by the Baghdad regime.

"It is our wish that your Holiness will not visit Iraq while it is under the rule of a despot with the blood of innocent people on his hands," wrote the dissidents.

The statement also calls on Pope John Paul II to support the Iraqi people in their effort to end both the "dictatorship and the harsh conditions caused by (UN) sanctions."

[ image: The Pope would like to visit Iraq in early December]
The Pope would like to visit Iraq in early December
The BBC's Middle East analyst Roger Hardy says that the 28 names include some prominent figures, including former ministers, diplomats and religious leaders.

They warn that the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would use the Pope's visit to help break out of his international isolation.

Catholic officials say the Pope would like to visit Iraq in early December, but it is already proving a highly controversial idea.

Concern over propaganda

An American Jewish group says it has been told the Pope plans to meet Saddam Hussein himself - something that would be received very badly, especially in the United States and Britain, the two countries playing a leading role in efforts to isolate and punish the Iraqi leader.

The US State Department says it sympathises with the Pope's desire to visit biblical sites but is concerned that Iraq would use it for propaganda.

The Pope's officials say the purpose of the visit is a religious one - to make a pilgrimage to Ur, the birthplace in southern Iraq of Abraham.

The Vatican's envoy to the UN, Monsignor Renato Martino, said in an interview with the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire: "The Pope has been all round the world, he has shaken the hands of everybody but this doesn't mean that he has taken on the ideas of those he meets."

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