Pope and U.S. Head for a Clash Over Iraq Tour

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As the U.S. found out when he visited Cuba, Pope John Paul II doesn’t set his moral compass by American foreign policy, and that may put the Vatican at loggerheads with Washington over Iraq. The BBC reported Thursday that the pontiff plans to visit the Iraqi city of Ur in December as part of a series of pilgrimages to biblical sites, which would mean an inevitable welcome in Baghdad from Saddam Hussein. Naturally, Washington is alarmed at the message that might be conveyed by the holiest man in Christendom granting a photo opportunity to the Butcher of Baghdad.

Dissuading His Holiness from visiting Baghdad may be difficult. The Vatican has already informed its small Iraqi diocese of the impending visit –- about 3 percent of Iraqis are Christian –- and has contacted the United Nations to gain permission for the flights that would take the pope to the city where the prophet Abraham is believed to have been first addressed by God. In addition, when planning his millennial pilgrimages, the pope was aware of the potential for controversy in visits to such biblically significant sites as Bethlehem, Nazareth and Damascus, and insisted he would resist any attempt at a political interpretation of his itinerary. On top of that, John Paul II is diametrically opposed to Washington’s policy of continued U.N. sanctions against Iraq, which he believes cause great suffering to the Iraqi people. And with the Iraq standoff no closer to resolution than it was at the end of the Gulf War, despite the embargo, the pontiff will be unlikely to heed U.S. pleas to stay out of Iraq. Then again, just as Washington has little sway over the pope’s movements, his host in Baghdad won’t be able to control the pontiff’s tongue.