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World Jewish Congress troubled by pope's planned Saddam meeting

By Douglas Davis

LONDON, Aug. 31 (JTA) -- The World Jewish Congress finds it ``deeply troubling" that the pope plans to meet Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in early December.

Pope John Paul II will visit Iraq for three days starting Dec. 2, in a trip that will include a helicopter visit to the town of Ur, the traditional birthplace of Abraham, some 200 miles south of Baghdad.

Elan Steinberg, WJC's executive director, said the pope's desire to visit Ur before the turn of the millennium has been known for some time.

``There are questions as to the propriety of that," Steinberg said. But that is a ``different dimension than his meeting with Saddam Hussein, in defiance of U.N. sanctions.

``We at the WJC find this deeply troubling."

The pope has emphasized that the trip to Iraq is part of a millennial personal pilgrimage to biblical sites and that it will have no political significance beyond a message of peace.

But observers believe the visit is bound to represent a significant diplomatic boost for Saddam, who has been treated as an international pariah for the past nine years.

The Chaldean Catholic patriarch, Raphael Bidawid, who represents some 80 percent of Iraq's 1 million-member Christian minority, has accused the United States and Israel of "trying hard to prevent the visit."

James Foley, a U.S. State Department spokesman, said last Friday there is concern the "regime in Iraq would attempt to manipulate the visit for political purposes."

Foley said that while the United States sympathized with the pope's desire to make the pilgrimage, "Iraq remains a brutal dictatorship where torture and summary execution are commonplace."

The pope is understood to be held in high regard in Iraq. He lobbied against the 1991 Gulf War, consistently opposed economic sanctions, and branded last December's U.S. and British bombing campaign as an "aggression."

Tareq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister, said that the United States and Britain should stop military operations over Iraq during the pope's visit.

In March, the 79-year-old pontiff is scheduled to visit Jerusalem and Nazareth in Israel, Bethlehem in the Palestinian-controlled areas, and Jordan.

He is also planning separate trips to St Catherine's Monastery, built on Mount Sinai in Egypt, and Damascus in Syria. No dates have been set for these visits.

(JTA staff writer Julia Goldman in New York contributed to this report.)

(c) Jewish Telegraphic Agency Inc.

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