- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 12, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 12 (UPI) — Hundreds of Iraqis in Baghdad Wednesday joined Pope John Paul II's special envoy in prayers for peace to prevail in their country.

Cardinal Roger Etchegaray addressed some 600 women, children and elderly who crowded St. Joseph Church by emphasizing the "growing worries these days" of the Iraqi people, whom he described as "patient and courageous."

"Everyone in the world is talking about peace today and (our) mind is focused on the heavy dangers threatening Iraq," he said in his sermon. "We are gathering here to witness the strong link between peace and prayers."

Etchergaray, the pope's closest aide, is calling his 3-day visit "a spiritual mission and for the sake of peace," adding, "we all need peace." The pope has sent him on several such missions before to help resolve crises, including the Israeli siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where a group of Palestinians took refuge last May.

Iraqis warmly applauded his comments at the service and some women ululated when he repeated several times "Salaam" (peace in Arabic). Many gathered outside the church after the sermon, expressing hope they could be spared another destructive war.

"All we want is peace," said Elias, who escorted his wife and two children to the church. "We don't need another war."

Earlier Wednesday, the 80-year-old French cardinal said he was to meet with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to hand him a personal message from the Holy See.

"I assure you that I will see President Saddam," Etchegaray told reporters in Baghdad. He however noted the meeting hasn't been fixed yet.

He was speaking after a meeting with Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan and Deputy Prime Minister Tarek Aziz, and described the focus of talks as "peace and justice" and "mutual confidence."

He said the meetings tackled "all what this country (Iraq) was able to do to demonstrate peace dynamism of peace" as provided by the Security Council and to receive the U.N. disarmament inspectors.

In separate comments Wednesday, Ramadan said Etchegaray was briefed in a detailed way about Iraq's cooperation to implement U.N. resolutions.

He said he also told the papal envoy during their meeting that the United States was dragging the world into "a big disaster" by insisting on attacking Iraq. The country has no weapons of mass destruction, he declared, but the United States was trying "all means to find pretexts for carrying out an aggression against Iraq" because it wants to "impose its hegemony on the region, occupy oil wells and control Iraq's wealth."

On Tuesday night, shortly after his arrival in Baghdad, Etchergaray said he wanted to encourage the Iraqi authorities to continue their collaboration with the United Nations "based on justice and international laws." He also warned war will be the "worst solution" to settle the Iraqi crisis and called for political leaders in all countries to pursue their efforts for peace.

The pope has repeatedly expressed opposition to a military intervention in Iraq and emphasized that such a war could and should be avoided. The Holy See was expected to meet Iraq's Aziz in the Vatican on Friday.

This was Etchegaray's second visit in three years to Iraq, where mostly Catholic Christians represent about 3 percent of the population. He previously attended a conference on the Iraqi and other Eastern Christians, and also discussed the prospects of a papal visit with Iraqi officials — a visit that, for security reasons, never happened.

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