ROME — In a message last month addressed to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Pope John Paul II said he prays for peace in that country and in the region.

The letter was written in the midst of increasing talk of U.S. force against Saddam, who is suspected of being behind international terrorism and harboring weapons of mass destruction.

According to the official Iraqi News Agency, the Pope's message was sent on the anniversary of the July 17, 1968, revolution that brought Saddam's Ba'ath Party to power. The Pope said he “implores God to bless Iraq and its people, and to make peace reign in the region.”

There are sharp divisions in the international community — and among Christians with an interest in the region — on the wisdom of a U.S. invasion. Iraqi Christians opposed to Saddam support President Bush's goal of a regime change in Baghdad.

“The head of all terrorists is Saddam Hussein,” said Albert Yelda, a founding member of the Iraqi National Congress, which met with other opposition groups and former Iraqi generals in London last month to discuss the overthrow of Saddam and plans for a post-Saddam government. “If we can get rid of him, peace in the Middle East will come more easily.”

While Christian leaders within Iraq have repeatedly denounced the idea of an invasion (see sidebar), Yelda said his group supports the U.S. effort to topple Saddam and replace his regime with a democratic government that is based on the rule of law and protects minorities. Yelda is a member of the Assyrian Church of the East, which is in communion with Rome.

“Saddam has used chemical warfare on his own people, including the Assyrians,” said John Nimrod, a former Illinois state senator who is secretary-general of the Chicago-based Assyrian Universal Alliance. “He's never hesitated to do whatever's necessary to keep himself in power.”

But Katia Mikhael, project manager at Catholic Relief Services’ regional office in Cairo, Egypt, said an invasion would be a “mad move” and that the populace would be the victims.

“War is not the solution,” said Mikhael, a Lebanese who manages projects in Iraq and other countries where CRS does not have a presence. “There are a lot of other choices. Think about the consequences, not just for the Iraqi population. … [Invading] troops would meet with a lot of resistance. Iraq is not Afghanistan.”

She said she does not see enough “clarity” in Bush's thinking on Iraq. “Talking about war against Iraq as the objective of fighting terrorism, that's mixing two things. What is the evidence [that Saddam is behind terrorism]? Why Iraq? What are the objectives?”

Mikhael, who visits Iraq two or three times a year, said Iraqi society is suffering from the continuing U.N. sanctions against the government, which refuses to allow weapons inspectors into the country. She argued that 10 years of sanctions have not brought about their desired result, because the government “steps on the shoulders of the populace so it doesn't suffer from the sanctions.”

But a recent report from the British Broadcasting Corp., based on interviews with Iraqi dissidents, said Saddam is inflating numbers when he claims 7,000 children a month die as a result of the sanctions and from depleted uranium leftover from Western weapons in the Gulf War. Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990.

The BBC report said Saddam stages public funerals with corpses of babies that have been frozen for months.

A related report in London's Observer calls into question the reason Saddam's regime gives for many of the deaths, dating back to 1991. The Observer quotes Dr. Nick Plowman, head of clinical oncology at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London, who points out that depleted uranium bombs that fell in the 1991 Gulf War could not have caused cancers or birth defects in that year. Fast leukemias might occur in four or five years and tumors about now, he said.

Richard Guthrie, a chemical weapons researcher at Sussex University, said the cause was much more likely to be chemical weapons employed by Iraq itself.

“There are serious clusters of cancers in the south of Iraq near Basra,” Guthrie told The Observer. He said Saddam used chemical weapons there in the late '80s to fend off an Iranian attack. By accident, he also dropped the weapons on Basra residents.

The sufferings of the Iraqi people are very real, however. Several Vatican congregations have called an end to the sanctions there.

Ancient Christian Land

Iraq's population of 22.3 million people is 97% Muslim (60% to 65% Shiite and 32% to 37% Sunni). The remaining 3% consists of Christians and other minorities.

“Christianity in Iraq has its roots in the country for thousands of years, since the Apostle Thomas, who converted the Iraqis in Mesopotamia to Christianity,” said Faiq Bourachi, who oversees implementation of Caritas programs in Iraq from Jordan. “The Chaldean Church in Iraq is the only Apostolic Church in the Middle East.”

Assyrians and Chaldeans are considered by many to be distinct ethnic groups who speak a distinct language, Syriac. But Iraq's Constitution does not provide for the recognition of these groups, and the government does not recognize political organizations that have been formed by Shiite Muslims or Assyrian Christians.

Catholic Relief Services’ Mikhael contends that “there has never been a persecution of Christians” because the ruling Ba'ath Party is “absolutely a lay regime.”

But the U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom Report last year said the Iraqi government “severely limits freedom of religion.” The government, the report said, has for decades conducted a “brutal campaign of murder, summary execution, arbitrary arrest and protracted detention against the religious leaders and followers of the majority Shi'a Muslim population and has sought to undermine the identity of minority Christian [Assyrian and Chaldean] and Yazidi groups.” Yazidis are a syncretistic religious group, many of whom consider themselves Kurdish.

The former U.N. Special Rapporteur for Iraq, Max Van Der Stoel, and others have reported the government has engaged in various abuses against the Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, especially in terms of forced movements from northern areas and repression of political rights.

The Assyrian Universal Alliance's Nimrod and the Iraqi National Congress’ Yelda say that the Church in Iraq is under the control and watchful eye of the government.

Nimrod, who attended the London meeting of Iraqi opposition groups, said a million Assyrians have fled Iraq during the past 15 years and those who remain are not allowed to speak their own language. He said the government is supposed to be secular, but Islam creeps into legislation.

As well, there are signs of a creeping Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq that might pose a problem for Christians in the future. For the past two years, a law has forbidden the use of non-Arab names for newborns. And Assyrian groups have reported several instances of mob violence by Muslims against Christians in the north in recent years, the state department report said.

Also, a fundamentalist Islamic group has been growing in the north of Iraq. Ansar al Islam, (Partisans of Islam) is suspected of having ties to both al Qaeda and the Saddam regime.

Yelda hopes Christians in the West will go beyond their condemnations of the U.N. sanctions. He thinks Christians in Iraq have been largely forgotten.

“It's strange when people of God state, ‘Don't attack Iraq,’” he said. “They're saying, ‘We don't want you to help the people of Iraq by getting rid of this evil regime.’”

The Iraqi opposition is hoping the Western powers won't abandon them as they say happened during the 1991 popular uprising against Saddam following the Gulf War.

Emanuel Kamber, an Iraqi Assyrian Christian who is a professor of physics at Western Michigan University, said opposition groups would like to see the United States provide “some kind of cover so they can move against the government.”

Yelda predicted that as soon as the opposition sees there is a “genuine, serious commitment” from the United States and its allies, Saddam's “special guards will turn against him.”

“We don't need 250,000 men,” said Yelda, referring to the number of troops news reports said the Pentagon is considering. “The Iraqi people will do it.”

Would Christians fare better or worse under a post-Saddam regime? If the United States does not oversee the installation of a proper government, they might be worse off, said Nimrod, a Presbyterian.

“I would hope that we as Christians would have our voice heard in whatever government is installed,” he added.

Several Iraqi bishops declined to be interviewed for this article. One high-ranking Church official in Baghdad said he did not want to speak by telephone because government officials monitor such communications.

Mikhael believes negotiations are still possible between Iraq and the United Nations to make it clear that Iraq is under sanctions because of its efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction and its threat to the region.

“War should be very far in the U.S. vision,” Mikhael said. “The will of peace and negotiations would be very helpful.”