In late February, Pax Christi USA, the national Catholic peace and justice movement, had an audience with Pope John Paul II concerning the Bush Administration's policy toward Iraq. At that audience, Rev. Joe Nangle presented the Holy Father with a letter urging him to come to New York City and address the members of the U.N. Security Council. Our deep hope was that the pope would reiterate to the Security Council what he has consistently said from the beginning: that a war against Iraq would be immoral and unjustified. Pax Christi USA believed that such an action by the pope would be a powerful statement to the world and that his moral authority might be able to turn the tide away from a possible war.

The context has shifted drastically since late February. President Bush is poised to unleash a massacre on the Iraqi people. He has dismissed the moral, ethical, and spiritual authority of the world's religious leaders, the vast majority of whom have stated their unequivocal opposition to this war and to a doctrine that espouses preventative war. He has even refused to listen to the leaders of his own denomination, ignoring requests from United Methodist bishops to meet with him and hear their counsel on this war.

Following the president's speech on Monday, people the world over began searching for ways to raise one last cry before the slaughter of innocent Iraqis commenced, hoping against hope that there might be some action or statement that could halt this war. One provocative and powerful action that is currently gaining support among many people of faith is the possibility of Pope John Paul II making a trip to Iraq.

So far, President Bush has shown himself to be immune to appeals that are shaped by religious, moral, and ethical concerns. A trip to Baghdad by the leader of the world's largest Christian community would put the President of the United States in a position where ignoring him would likely be a grave political mistake. If President Bush were to go forward with a bombing campaign in Iraq with Pope John Paul II present in that country, it would serve to highlight the complete disregard the president has practiced toward those who question his justification of war. Furthermore, he would risk alienating millions of Catholics-in the U.S. and abroad-and other people of faith who see the pope as a holy figure. Ignoring the pope and other religious leaders has been a rather simple matter for the president so far; but should the Pope put himself in harm's way, it would be exponentially more difficult for President Bush to disregard him and dismiss the counsel of the leaders of the world's religious traditions.

While many hope a trip to Iraq by Pope John Paul II would create a political minefield for the president and at the very least delay any action against Iraq, a visit by the Pope would also serve to highlight the plight of the Iraqi people. Because of his status as an international figure, Pope John Paul II's visit would provide an opportunity for U.S. audiences to see that Iraq consists of more than one mad dictator sitting on a cache of weapons of mass destruction.
It is much more difficult to support a war when the public sees the faces of the women and children and ordinary Iraqis who will suffer and die because the Bush Administration wants to "take out" one man. By visiting Iraq and expressing his solidarity with the innocent and vulnerable people of Iraq, the Pope would make a poignant statement that could increase opposition to this war.

Finally, a visit by Pope John Paul II to Iraq would be an expression of the best ideals of Christianity. As disciples of Jesus, Christians are called to a life of prophetic witness, a life lived for others, a life steeped in values like compassion, hope, love, and kindness. The Pope would provide an example for Christians the world over that is rooted in the best of our humanity and motivated by love and justice, not the fear and retribution preached and practiced by the Bush Administration.

The difference that a visit to Iraq by Pope John Paul II might make is difficult to ascertain. But moments of great despair often call forth actions that express our greatest hopes. Now is the time for all Christians and all people of good will to do what is necessary to witness to life and peace, not death and violence.

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