Pope Sending Envoy to Meet With Bush
Saturday March 1, 2003 7:30 PM
VATICAN CITY (AP) - Intensifying his diplomatic efforts to avert a war against Iraq, Pope John Paul II is sending a special envoy to Washington to meet with President Bush, the Vatican said Saturday.
Cardinal Pio Laghi, an Italian who for years served as the Holy See's ambassador to the United States, will leave Rome in the next few days, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said.
Laghi will ``illustrate the position and the initiatives undertaken by the Holy See to contribute to disarmament and to peace in the Middle East,'' Navarro-Valls said.
No exact date for the visit was announced, but an Italian news agency, Ap.Biscom, said Laghi would leave for Washington on Monday.
The U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson, said the Vatican's foreign minister, Monsignor Jean Louis Tauran, asked the embassy a few days earlier to relay a letter to Washington saying the pope was planning to dispatch Laghi to Washington ``desiring to meet with'' Bush.
``The pope is becoming very engaged in this matter,'' Nicholson told The Associated Press.
The ambassador has held several meetings with Vatican officials, who he said several weeks ago ``were not convinced there is significant justification'' for going to war.
As part of his diplomatic efforts to head off a war, John Paul last month dispatched to Iraq a French cardinal who, bearing a message from the pontiff, met with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The pope has said a war would be a ``defeat for humanity,'' and Vatican officials have argued that there is no moral justification for a preventive war against Iraq.
The Vatican also fears a U.S.-led attack on Iraq would be seen by Muslims as a Christian crusade against them, leading to deteriorating relations between both sides and leaving Christians vulnerable to possible retaliation.
Highly respected across much of the globe for his moral authority, John Paul, in addition to his own diplomatic moves, has been sought out by top political leaders, both those opposed to the war and those who maintain that armed intervention might be the only way to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.
On Wednesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, asked what Bush thinks about the pope's view against the war, replied: ``The pope has historically played a role in dialogue around the world. It is the papacy's right to engage in dialogue.''
Fleischer added: ``The president will make his decisions based on what he thinks is right to protect the American people.''
In recent days, John Paul has held private talks here with two of Bush's staunchest allies in the front against Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Preceding them was the foreign minister of Germany, which has flat out opposed war, and Iraq's deputy premier.
John Paul had championed diplomatic initiatives in past crises, including in the months before the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq and the 1999 NATO bombing campaign to halt Serbia's assault on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. But his current resolve to avert a new war against Iraq has seen the 82-year-old, ailing pope even more strenuously opposing military action.
A former Washington insider, Laghi, 80, served as the papal nuncio, or top diplomat, to the United States from 1984 until 1990.