VATICAN CITY-The Vatican has decided to go ahead with plans for Pope John Paul II to make a controversial pilgrimage to Iraq but may change the date from December to January, Vatican sources said Oct. 21.
The resumed planning indicated that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has provided the guarantees demanded by the Vatican that the Pope's presence would not be politicized.
The Vatican canceled a planned trip to Baghdad by Father Roberto Tucci, the Jesuit who acts as the Pope's advance man, and announced a “pause for reflection” earlier this month after a group of Iraqi scholars leveled sharp criticism at a spiritual pilgrimage by the Pope.
The Iraqis said the Holy Father would be welcome only if he denounced the economic sanctions the United Nations imposed on Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Iraqi Caldean Patriarch Raphael Bidawid, who is mediating between Baghdad and the Vatican, met in the Vatican Oct. 20 with Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, and officials of the Secretariat of State.
Bidawid's brief visit stirred speculation that he carried a response from Saddam's regime to the Vatican's demands.
Asked at a Vatican news conference today whether the Pope would travel to Iraq, Silvestrini said: “I continue to have faith. And I really think he will make this trip although the date has not been fixed.”
Vatican sources said that because of the delay in planning, the visit probably would have to be moved forward from early December to mid-January.
John Paul hopes to travel to the site of the ancient city of Ur of the Chaldees in southern Iraq, home of the Prophet Abraham. Ur, located in the desert 240 miles south of Baghdad, would be the first stop on a series of papal pilgrimages to Old and New Testament sites in Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Palestine Authority territory and Syria to mark the start of the thirdmillennium of Christianity.
The U.S. and British governments strongly oppose the visit to Iraq on thegrounds that Saddam would try to exploit it politically.
Iraqi officials have begun renovating Ur, and the Vatican's envoy to Iraq, Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, met Saturday (Oct. 16) with Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf to discuss the papal trip, Reuters reported from Baghdad Thursday, quoting embassy sources.
The news agency said an advance team headed by Tucci was expected to visit Iraq to lay the groundwork but no schedule had yet been set, they said.
In a separate development, ZENIT, the Rome-based news agency, reported that the U.S. government's lobbying against the papal trip has intensified over the last weeks. Opposition to Saddam has led the U.S. to exhort John Paul II to “reconsider his decision” so as not to reinforce the dictator's position.
(From combined wire services)