- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2003

VATICAN CITY Pope John Paul II stepped up his crusade against a looming war in Iraq yesterday, urging the world's Christians to fast for peace on Ash Wednesday.
The fast today will coincide with a meeting between President Bush and the pope's special envoy, Cardinal Pio Laghi, who will carry the pope's special plea to the U.S. leader to refrain from waging war against Iraq.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, observed as a time for sacrifice.
The pope said the day of fasting would remind people of the long years of suffering endured by Iraqi citizens.
The day of fasting should "provide greater understanding of the difficulties and sufferings or our brothers confronted by hunger, misery and war," the pontiff said in a message.
The appeal has also been passed on by the World Council of Churches in Geneva and the Synod of the Church of England.
In an informal opinion poll carried out by a private Italian television channel, 55.7 percent of viewers said they were willing to follow the appeal to fast.
The pope has emerged as one of the most prominent opponents against a U.S.-led conflict with Iraq. In recent weeks, he has received leaders ranging from Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Washington's key ally on Iraq, and Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, another key U.S. supporter and member of the U.N. Security Council. Yesterday, he held talks with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Washington has insisted that the pope's anti-war pronouncements will not sway the United States from its hard-line stance on Iraq.
"Cardinal Laghi's mission may be useful, but Iraq must disarm," Jim Nicholson, U.S. envoy to the Holy See, said on the private Italian television channel La 7 yesterday. "If Saddam Hussein were to leave his country, that would be a perfect solution."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters yesterday that the president "looks forward to receiving and greeting the papal emissary tomorrow to find out what the message of the pope is on this topic."
He said Mr. Bush disagrees with the pope's stance that there is no moral or legal justification for military action, saying Iraq is "not following the legal path" set out by U.N. resolutions.
Officials at the Vatican have said the 82-year-old pope has thrown all his energy into efforts to stop the war, despite the crippling effects of his Parkinson's disease.
"He has been more alert in the last few days, as though he wanted to give us more strength," Cardinal Laghi said.
The pope has adopted a vocal stance of principled opposition against a military conflict with Iraq, saying the future of humanity can never be ensured by the logic of war.
"Marred by long-standing and seemingly relentless conflicts, the world stands on the brink of yet another war," the pope wrote last month in a pessimistic message to newly enthroned Anglican leader Archbishop Rowan Williams.
Separately, the Vatican yesterday denied reports that the pope plans to make a personal address to the United Nations Security Council if his envoy fails to deter Mr. Bush from going to war.
"There are no plans for the Holy Father to visit the United Nations," a spokesman told reporters.

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