- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 4, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 4 (UPI) — A senior Vatican cardinal was scheduled to meet President George W. Bush Wednesday to deliver a message on the Iraq crisis from Pope John Paul II.

Vatican sources have not revealed details of the pope's message brought by Cardinal Pio Laghi. But they point out that John Paul has been an outspoken opponent of military action against Saddam Hussein. He has made repeated public statements calling for a peaceful resolution to disarming Baghdad.

Vatican sources have told United Press International that the pope has been even more emphatic in private meetings with visiting world leaders. When British Prime Minister Tony Blair tried to defend Bush's hard line on Iraq to the pope during his recent audience, one authoritative British Catholic publication reported that he got a papal dressing down.

John Paul told Blair the Iraq crisis should be resolved in concert with the international community, and having recourse to international law. Later, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, said the Vatican regarded a preventive war as "aggression" and unjust.

Vatican specialists noted that John Paul's opposition to a U.S.-led offensive against Saddam Hussein is not coupled with any condemnation of the Iraqi leader's own despotic behavior, or his buildup of weapons of mass destruction.

During World War II, Pope Pius XII maintained a conspicuous silence about the rise of Hitler. He never issued a condemnation of the Nazis' persecution of the Jews. In 1943, the pope once explained to U.S. diplomat Harold Tittman, who spent the war living in the Vatican, that a public attack by the pope on Hitler could jeopardize the lives of not just German Catholics, but all Christians in Germany as well.

Despite significant differences in scale, for some observers, the explanation finds an echo in John Paul's rationale for not condemning Saddam, whose ruthless repression of his own people is beyond doubt.

The pope himself has given no reasons, but the Vatican secretary of State, Sodano, offered an explanation that bespeaks a pragmatic approach, not a religious one.

"Some think the Church's representatives are idealists," the cardinal said at a lunch with a small group of Vatican journalists. "We are — but we are also realists."

"Is irritating a billion Muslims worth it? This is the question I put to some of my American friends: Is it advisable? Won't you have the hostility of that whole population for decades?" he went on.

"Without getting bogged down in the question of whether or not the war is moral, I think the question of advantage is worth asking. We know how to start wars, but not how they will end. I ask the Americans: Are you sure you will emerge well from it? Doesn't the experience of Vietnam urge you to be prudent? … In the interest of harmony with the Muslim world, we must ask, what is the best way to approach the crisis in Iraq?"

Vatican sources said Cardinal Laghi, the pope's emissary, who is familiar with Washington from his days as papal nuncio to the United States from 1984 to 1990, will relay a verbal appeal to the president from the pope not to attack Iraq.

Last month, the pope sent another top Vatican prelate, French-born Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, to Saddam, and reports said Etchegaray tried to persuade the Iraqi leader to disarm.

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