- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2003

President Bush yesterday rejected the anti-war pleas of a papal envoy during an Ash Wednesday meeting in the Oval Office, arguing that forgoing war would be immoral.
Cardinal Pio Laghi, a former papal nuncio to the United States, gave Mr. Bush a letter from Pope John Paul II that outlined the pontiff's moral objections to an attack on Iraq. But the president countered that much good could come from such a war.
"A disarmed Iraq is something that makes the world both safer and better," a senior administration official said after the meeting. "Better for the Iraqi people, better for the region, better for the world."
The official added: "As president, he has the responsibility to protect the American people and to protect America, which is an important factor in his thinking."
The Vatican, which also opposed the 1991 Persian Gulf war, maintains that it would be "immoral, illegal, unjust" for the United States to lead a military offensive in Iraq without U.N. approval. The pope said in his letter to Mr. Bush: "I assure you, Mr. President, that I am praying for you and America, and I ask the Lord to inspire you to search for the way of a stable peace, the noblest of human endeavors."
Even before the letter was delivered, the administration was eager to counter its contents. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters: "The president has some thoughts to share about the morality and the legality of using force to protect the peace."
Cardinal Laghi described the meeting as "very frank."
"Today, on Ash Wednesday, Catholics around the world are following the pope's request to pray and fast for peace," he said he told Mr. Bush. "The Holy Father himself continues to pray and hope that all leaders who face difficult decisions will be inspired in their search for peace."
Cardinal Laghi said a decision to wage war "can only be taken within the framework of the United Nations."
His comment came two days after Mr. Bush told reporters: "Well, I just disagree that we need to get U.N. permission to protect ourselves."
Still, the papal envoy and president found common ground on issues like abortion, cloning and even some aspects of the Iraq situation. Both men stated they would prefer to resolve the standoff without military force. And Cardinal Laghi acknowledged that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is dragging his feet in complying with international demands that he give up weapons of mass destruction.
"If he intends to disarm, certainly at this stage he goes too slowly," Cardinal Laghi said. "He has been promising for 12 years, but now where do we go?"
He shrugged off a question about what would happen if Mr. Bush ignores the pope's advice by waging war.
"The Holy Father doesn't give instructions; it is the Gospel that gives instructions to us, and the Gospel is about peace," Cardinal Laghi said. "It is up to the United States government to consider the consequences."
Yesterday's meeting was also attended by U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Jim Nicholson, former chairman of the Republican National Committee. He dismissed talk of deteriorating relations between America and the Vatican.
"The relationship is very strong because we have such a foundation of common values," he said, citing values like "the freedom and dignity of men."
Last month, the pope dispatched Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a retired French prelate, to Iraq to urge Saddam's regime to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors as a way to avert war.
On Tuesday, Mr. Fleischer made clear that war would be morally superior to appeasement of Saddam.
"The president thinks the most immoral act of all would be if Saddam Hussein were to somehow transfer his weapons to terrorists who could use them against us," he said. "So the president does view the use of force as a matter of legality, as a matter of morality and as a matter of protecting the American people."

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