Thursday, December 16, 2004

LONDON — Saddam Hussein’s former foreign minister and right-hand man, Tariq Aziz, has persuaded sympathizers in the Vatican to arrange free legal advice for his defense against war crimes.

Mr. Aziz, a practicing Christian who acted as foreign spokesman for the Iraqi dictator, secured the services of Italian lawyers after contacting a group of Roman Catholic priests and bishops.

He wrote to his family from jail in Baghdad, urging them to contact the Rev. Jean-Marie Benjamin, a priest who previously had brokered a meeting between Mr. Aziz and Pope John Paul II before the war last year.

Father Benjamin, who has said he is acting with the Vatican’s unofficial approval, is now orchestrating religious and legal support for Mr. Aziz.

The campaign also has the backing of Monsignor Emmanuel Delly, the patriarch of Baghdad and spiritual leader of the country’s 500,000 Chaldean Christians, including Mr. Aziz.

Supporters of Mr. Aziz say he was only a diplomat, but British and American officials say his role as apologist for Saddam’s regime makes him culpable.

Father Benjamin, 58, is a former executive of UNICEF, which campaigned against sanctions on Iraq. “Mr. Aziz was a friend of mine and was a diplomat, not a military man,” he said.

Father Benjamin said Mr. Aziz’s family contacted him last July for help with the defense. “When I talked with my bishops and superiors they said ‘yes, morally you have the right to do so.’”

He said the lawyers will work for free because the Aziz family lacks the funds.

The Vatican, which declined to comment on the matter, encourages priests to carry out unofficial initiatives as a way of tackling sensitive diplomatic issues.

Father Benjamin received a warm letter from Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state, thanking him for his work “building links with Iraqis and the wider Arab world.”

The letter made no direct reference to the Aziz case but Father Benjamin said: “Privately, they support what we do.”

Father Benjamin has assembled a team of five Italian lawyers and fellow clergymen, including a bishop, Diego Bona, the president of the Assisi-based Beato Angelico Foundation, which promotes Muslim-Christian relations.

It was as director of the foundation that Father Benjamin invited Mr. Aziz to meet the pope in February last year, prompting criticism that Rome was rolling out the red carpet for the Iraqi regime.

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