Perils of Pilgrimage

Article excerpt

In December, the Pope plans to visit the ruined city of Ur of the Chaldees, the birthplace of Abraham, a figure revered by three great faiths. Even by John Paul's standards this pilgrimage is fraught with diplomatic perils. Iraq's status as an international pariah means that even getting into the country will pose problems because of the UN embargo on air travel. Ur is also located in the Southern No Fly Zone, something Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, was quick to seize on when he demanded that the US and Britain stop military operations during the pilgrimage. Opponents of the regime have asked the Pope to avoid making the journey whilst Saddam Hussein remains in power. The problems do not end here as the US and Israel continue their diplomatic pressure to stop the pilgrimage. Washington is acutely conscious of fierce criticism by the

Catholic church of the US-led sanctions and their terrible cost in innocent life.

THE VISIT TO IRAQ offers some intriguing possibilities: will the Pope and Saddam Hussein meet? And might the Holy See attempt to broker some kind of a deal between the waning parties? Already there are high expectations of what John Paul might achieve, as Archbishop Djibrael Kassab of Basra made clear when he said that Iraqis 'hope if the Pope comes to Iraq, sanctions will be ended'.1

Indeed, the pilgrimage seems timed deliberately to draw attention to a human catastrophe which has received relatively little public attention in the West even with a child mortality rate which, according to UNICEF, has doubled in the last ten years. Although the Catholic population in Iraq is small, around 800,000, the Vatican, and the British and American bishops, have all been critical of the UN sanctions.

The visit to Ur, as well as a planned journey to Nazareth, Jerusalem and Damascus, is also likely to inflame the Vatican's tender relations with Israel, which only recently exchanged ambassadors with the Holy See.

The controversy over Pius XII's wartime role and the Vatican's wish to see Jerusalem become an 'open' city provide an uncomfortable background to the continuation of this Middle Eastern pilgrimage next year.

Despite successful visits over the past three years to Lebanon, Poland, France, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, Cuba, Austria, Croatia and Romania, this trip presents John Paul with a delicate balancing act. He needs to both express disapproval of a brutal regime whilst also condemning a US-led policy which the Holy See believes is causing irreparable harm to an entire generation.

John Paul's criticism of the sanctions mirrors his opposition to those imposed by Washington on Cuba, as well as his distaste for the original Operation Desert Storm and the recent NATO campaign in Kosovo. Indeed, in a unipolar world, the Catholic church is amongst the more trenchant critics of the United States' economic and political dominance.


Given its lack of economic or military capacity - as Josef Stalin once memorably observed - the Holy See has to make the most of its symbolic power and papal pilgrimages form a formidable weapon in its diplomatic armoury. Under John Paul, who has now made eighty-eight, these have developed to a fine art.

For example, despite opposition from the Clinton administration and exile groups, the Pope went ahead with his Cuban visit in January 1998. Typically, John Paul was careful not to express an overtly political message. Yet, at the same time, he managed to convey opposition to the US trade embargo, whilst also criticising Castro's suppression of human rights.

Why should the visit of a frail, elderly man, from a state of a little more than a few acres arouse such controversy? The answer is that the man in question is the remarkable John Paul 11, the 121st successor to St Peter as Bishop of Rome. Among world leaders he is unique in being able to draw millions to his open air masses and rallies. …