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Plea for papal trip to Baghdad


We are living through a nightmare. Most of our nation and virtually the entire world community want the White House to avoid or delay war with Iraq. At the very least, the wish is to give U.N. weapons inspectors more time to do their work.

Yet no argument or protest seems capable of dislodging Bush from his war fixation. He seems utterly incapable of imagining the potential consequences of war: untold bloodshed, an irate Muslim world, tattered alliances, a disemboweled United Nations, U.S. moral bankruptcy, the vulnerability and precariousness of a U.S. occupation force, $100 billion added to the national deficit and a deeply divided nation, to name a few.

Can nothing be done to avert the madness?

With only a few exceptions of the most partisan Bush supporters, Catholic and other religious leaders have spoken out vigorously and repeatedly against the war. Protests have drawn tens of millions. A healthy convergence of Christian just-war and pacifist war opposition has emerged.

Almost no one can morally justify a “preemptive” military strike. Yet this is official U.S. policy. These are not the ideals we grew up to love and respect.

We have come to a bleak moment, just minutes away from midnight peril. It’s a moment that requires extraordinary imagination and action.

For his part, Pope John Paul II has been among the most vociferous of peace petitioners. Beginning with his impassioned pleas in early January, on World Peace Day, the pope has repeatedly made it known that he opposes military force in Iraq. He has called upon both Bush and Saddam Hussein to work with the United Nations to bring about both disarmament and peace to the region.

As the war drumbeat has continued, the Vatican, in concert with the pope’s pleas, has become increasingly active on the diplomatic front. Last month, the pope sent papal troubleshooter Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, along with Msgr. Franco Coppola of the Secretariat of State, to Iraq for direct talks with Hussein. Etchegaray carried a personal letter from John Paul II in which the pope urged Hussein to cooperate with weapons inspectors and all United Nations resolutions.

After the Hussein meeting Feb. 15, Etchegaray said, “He appeared to me a man in good health, seriously conscious of his responsibilities, which he must face before his people.

“I’m convinced that today Saddam Hussein wants to avoid war.”

Etchegaray added that he believes “peace is still possible in Iraq and for Iraq.”

The Etchegaray initiative was not the only one in recent weeks. The pope also received Iraqi Vice Premier Tariq Aziz, a Chaldean Catholic, an Eastern church loyal to Rome. Following Aziz’s meeting with the pope, Aziz visited Assisi and prayed for peace at the tomb of St. Francis.

A Vatican statement said Aziz assured church officials “of the Iraqi government’s willingness to cooperate with the international community, particularly in regard to disarmament.”

NCR Rome correspondent John Allen reports that the Vatican has struggled to remain above the political fray, calling equally on the United States to stand down but also for Iraq to disarm. Yet, he has observed, “some Vatican rhetoric continues to be sharply critical of U.S. policy.”

The Aziz visit touched off speculation that he might invite John Paul to Baghdad, but Aziz told reporters that under current security conditions such a trip would be inadvisable. Vatican spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls seemed to end the speculation, saying the idea of a trip was a “closed chapter.”

But is it?

Should a papal trip be out of the question? By visiting Baghdad, Pope John Paul II may be the only person in the world with the moral authority to avert war.

Yes, the pope is weak and frail; yes, the trip would be taxing; yes, those around him will say the trip is ill advised; yes, he would face opposition from both Baghdad and Washington. Yet, this pope has displayed, at times, a fiercely independent mind of his own.

Even the announcement of a papal trip to Baghdad would throw a wrench in the U.S. war machine. The visit, maybe even an extended visit, could buy needed time.

The Bush team has shocked us all with its vulgar disregard for international diplomacy and decorum. But would Bush bomb Baghdad with the pope present?

Furthermore, a visit would spark the collective imagination of other world leaders and peace activists who might, then, want to join the papal entourage and press the case of peace.

A papal Iraq trip would, no doubt, cap a pontificate that has consistently called us all to be peacemakers. Who knows? It might dramatically make the case that the world can no longer afford warfare in this age of terrifying weaponry.

So with respect for our pope and carrying the hopes of countless millions of peace seekers worldwide, I call upon our pontiff, the bridge-builder, to consider anew traveling to Baghdad and entering into solidarity with the Iraqi people, and through them, the wider human family on one more mission of peace.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher. He can be reached at tfox@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2003