ROME, Dec. 12 (JTA) — Pope John Paul II has — at least for now — scrapped plans to visit Iraq as part of his millennium pilgrimage to biblical sites because Baghdad says it cannot guarantee his safety.
“Iraqi authorities have informed the Secretariat of State that the abnormal conditions in which Iraq finds itself due to the embargo and the no-fly zone, as well as the general situation in the region, do not permit a visit by the Holy Father to Ur to be organized properly,” said a statement issued Friday by the chief Vatican spokesman.
The pope had wanted to visit Ur, the town in southern Iraq where according to tradition the patriarch Abraham was born. Last month, an advance team from the Vatican visited Ur and met with Iraqi officials, and the trip was expected to take place in January.
“The Americans and the British control the air space. A few months ago they bombed an area near Ur. What would happen if they bombed the same area during the visit or, if not them, then some hothead,” the Vatican news agency Fides quoted Raphael Bidawid, the Patriarch of Babylon, as saying.
Senior Catholic officials are holding out hope that the trip would be rescheduled.
“The intense desire of the Holy Father to make this pilgrimage remains unchanged,” said Cardinal Roger Etchegaray. “We hope that he can make the trip as soon as possible.”
The 79-year-old pope plans to visit the Holy Land in March to visit biblical sites as part of a pilgrimage marking the year 2000 — a Jubilee, or Holy Year, in Catholicism.
Although he wanted to visit Iraq solely to pray at the birthplace of Abraham, such a trip would have had to include a meeting with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for protocol reasons.
The United States, Britain, Israel, Jewish groups and anti-Saddam Iraqi exiles, among others, have protested such a trip, saying that Saddam could exploit it for his own purposes.
The pope already has frequently criticized the use of sanctions against Iraq and has expressed sympathy with the plight of the Iraqi people.