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Sunday, 19 March, 2000, 12:32 GMT
Pope's prayer for Iraq
Pope John Paul II
The Pope had been hoping to visit Iraq himself
Pope John Paul II has added his voice to the growing chorus of concern about the effects of international sanctions against Iraq.

I assure all those who are suffering, especially the women, children and elderly, of my prayerful support

Pope John Paul II
"The sons and daughters of the [Catholic] Church in Iraq, and all the Iraqi people who are being so severely tried by the continuing international embargo, never cease to be present in my thoughts," the Pontiff said.

"I assure all those who are suffering, especially the women, children and elderly, of my prayerful support."

The Pope has frequently criticised the use of sanctions in Iraq and elsewhere, arguing that the weakest - who are already suffering - pay the highest price.

His latest comments came during a visit to the Vatican by Iraq's Christian patriarch, Raphael Bidawid.

Holy places

Pope John Paul had himself hoped to visit Iraq during a tour of holy places in the Middle East, which begins on Monday.

Iraqi woman and child
Women and children suffer most
But the government in Baghdad turned him down, saying the UN sanctions made such a visit impossible.

His six-day pilgrimage to Jordan, Israel and Palestinian-ruled areas is intended to follow in the footsteps of Moses and Jesus.

Israel is organising what is being described as the biggest ever security operation for a foreign dignitary for its leg of the Pope's trip.

On Sunday, suspected Jewish extremists vandalised the helicopter pad where the Pope is due to land on Tuesday.

Swastika graffitied on pope's helicopter landing pad
The graffiti on the landing pad reads: Pope out
The vandals smashed landing lights and painted Nazi swastika symbols alongside graffiti telling him to get out.

Correspondents say some Israelis still resent the Vatican for its alleged lack of support for Jews persecuted by the Nazis during World War II.

The Pontiff's comments on Iraq come less than a week after UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed serious concern about the state of the healthcare system there

In a report on the UN's humanitarian programme in Iraq, he recommended an easing of import restrictions, while urging Baghdad to improve the delivery of drugs to its people.

Internal dissent

Under the programme, Baghdad is allowed to sell oil in exchange for food and medical supplies.

The UN has been under severe criticism in recent weeks over its policy towards Iraq.

Iraqi women protesting
There are frequent demonstrations against the sanctions
The co-ordinator of its own humanitarian programme in Iraq resigned last month in protest over the impact of UN sanctions on Iraqi civilians.

And the International Committee of the Red Cross has warned that the very survival of the Iraqi people was under threat, following two wars and 10 years of sanctions.

The ICRC report, published earlier this month, said Iraq's collapsed health facilities and badly-damaged water sanitation system posed the gravest dangers.

The US says Baghdad is responsible for the misery, because it has not complied with the terms for lifting sanctions. It also accuses the authorities in Baghdad of not distributing the medicines which they have.

The UN imposed sanctions on Iraq following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing war.

Certain humanitarian supplies are allowed into Iraq, but the UN is concerned to keep out anything which could potentially be used in the manufacture of weapons - including vaccines which some say could be used to make biological weapons.

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See also:

13 Mar 00 | Middle East
Annan fears for Iraq's health
01 Mar 00 | Middle East
Iraq's survival 'under threat'
14 Feb 00 | Middle East
UN sanctions rebel resigns
17 Oct 99 | Middle East
'Iraq child death rates still high'
04 Feb 00 | Middle East
Iraq concessions unlikely says UN
14 Feb 00 | Middle East
'Lost generation' faces bleak future
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