Archbishop Renato Martino told the Italian daily Avvenire that he hoped for a halt to the air strikes from December 2 to December 4, when Pope John Paul II will be visiting Iraq.
Archbishop Martino emphasized that the papal visit would not be dependent on the agreement by British and American leaders to halt the bombing. That visit would take place as scheduled, he said- - although the Vatican has not yet officially confirmed the plans. Informed sources also say that the Pope will stop in Egypt during his return trip on December 5, for a visit to Mount Sinai.
The papal voyage is intended as a religious rather than political event, the archbishop stressed. However, he observed: "There are people for whom the prospect of this trip is not pleasant, and they have sought to give it a political significance."
The Holy See cannot ignore the political situation in Iraq, Archbishop Martino continued. He noted that the Pope has spoken out frequently in opposition to the international sanctions that have been imposed on Iraq, and the bombing raids, which continue, on a regular basis. But the Pope's trip to Iraq is not intended as a means of "giving a blessing" to the regime of Saddam Hussein, he added that the Vatican seeks only to remind the world that "the fault is not completely on one side."
Nevertheless, a group of Iraqi dissidents sent an open letter to Pope John Paul II on Thursday, asking him not to meet with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during a planned trip, joining the United States and some Jewish groups in opposition to the visit.
"It is our wish that Your Holiness not visit Iraq while it is under the rule of a despot with the blood of innocent people on his hands," the group of 19 organizations representing exiled and dissident Iraqis said in an open letter to the Holy Father. The letter referred to human rights abuses by Saddam and a UN report saying Saddam's government had one of the worst human rights records of any country since World War Two.
The groups said they understood the Holy Father's desire to visit Ur of the Chaldeans, the birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham, but were concerned that Saddam could use the visit for political purposes. The Vatican has dismissed such concerns in the past, citing the Holy Father's visits to other oppressed countries where he confronted political leaders and left increased religious freedom in his wake.
The World Jewish Congress has said it hoped the Holy Father could be convinced not to meet Saddam and the US has warned that a papal visit could engender support for loosening international restrictions on Iraq. The Pope has been an ardent opponent of economic sanctions in place against Iraq since the Gulf War.
Meanwhile, the Greek Orthodox bishop of Sinai in Egypt announced on Thursday that the Holy Father will briefly visit St. Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai during his December trip. The site is believed to be the location where Moses spoke to God in the burning bush and where he received the Ten Commandments. Hermits and monks began living at the site in the 4th century.
In spite of these doubts, the Holy Father answered that the Church was not afraid of the truth and that it would be impossible to take on the challenges of contemporary society without facing this kind of examination of conscience.
Pope John Paul renewed his commitment to seek unity among Christian churches and admitted that this would not be possible until all sides agreed to admit to their failures. And that, if Christians did not overcome their differences, they would continue to be a motive of scandal for the rest of the world who do not understand them. Christian witness would also not be credible if abuses of human rights committed during certain historical periods by sons of the Church were not recognized and reviewed.
The first part of their work took place in 1997, when they organized an international Symposium in the Vatican to discuss anti-Judaism. In 1998, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, another congress ws organized in Rome on the theme of the Inquisition. In the year 2000, from Feb. 25-27, the third symposium will be held on the application of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, considered by many as the most important Church event of this century.
The results of these meetings, which have assembled world-renowned experts in each of the fields in question, should offer Pope John Paul II the necessary material to draw up the final draft of the penitential act of "pardon scheduled for March 8, 2000, Ash Wednesday. ZE99090103
Addressing his remarks especially to the Polish members of the audience, and speaking in his native tongue, the Holy Father said: "Today we recall with special gratitude the heroic defenders of our country, who shed their blood to save our land during that September campaign."
The Pope's reflections-- which were published in the September 2 edition of L'Osservatore Romano-- characterized the anniversary as "a tragic day." He remarked that the arrival of war brought "a sad period, marked by the death and suffering of people and even entire nations." He asked his audience to pray for "the gift of peace"-- for Poland in particular, for Europe, and for the entire world.
The school at present houses 1000 Timorese refugees, displaced from their homes by anti-independence militias, armed and trained by Indonesia's military. Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world, invaded mainly Catholic East Timor in 1975 and annexed it the following year in a move not recognized by the United Nations. On August 31, East Timor held a referendum on the territory's future: whether to seek independence or greater autonomy within Indonesia.
"Pro-independence activists deny they are involved in recent rioting with pro-Indonesia militia: this is a clear signal" said Father Ratu-Dopo. He pointed out that the "riots began after the referendum which took place with relative peace and calm." He added, "Now the future of the island is in danger because the pro-Indonesian factions will never accept the defeat of the referendum."
According to the Jesuit, the Indonesian army has orchestrated efforts to destabilize the territory and legitimize its presence. "Within the independence forces there is a fringe of socialist orientation which has detached itself from the official organization of the National Council for East Timor. The army led infiltration of Indonesian paramilitary groups with the precise intention of creating disorder on the island."
As a confirmation of Father Ratu-Dopo's statement, the independent Observer Kipper newspaper, always critical of the military, affirmed that some new generals and senior police officers have arrived in East Timor with political objectives which are not those proclaimed by the government. Indonesia's military has been critical of the Jakarta government's offer of autonomy or independence to East Timor.
Meanwhile, pro-Jakarta militia control the island and continue to sow terror, attacking and burning the homes of independence supporters. UN officials pleaded with Jakarta to provide better protection for observers after three UN workers were killed near their compound in Dili.