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PAPAL ENVOY IN BAGHDAD: `WE PRAY FOR PEACE IN IRAQ'
Filed February 13, 2003 By Jeremy Scahill
 

BAGHDAD—Roger Cardinal Etchegary, senior advisor to Pope John Paul II, arrived in Baghdad yesterday on what he described as a mission of peace. He held talks with Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan and Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who is Catholic.

Regardless of their faith, Iraqis are now praying for a miracle. Almost no one believes that war can be averted and people of all religions repeat the phrase: "We are asking God to save us."

Iraqi Christians came from across Baghdad and beyond yesterday to pack the large St. Joseph Cathedral in the center of the capital. For them it was a rare day of hope in very disparate times. Cardinal Etchegaray presided over the mass. He is the highest Church official to visit Iraq in decades. For several years, the Pope himself has expressed interest in coming to Iraq but the trip never materialized.

Roger Cardinal Etchegary, senior advisor to Pope John Paul II, leads a mass in Baghdad. The cardinal was dispatched to Iraq as a special envoy from the Vatican to support efforts to avoid war and to meet with the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein. He ended his homily with the refrain of "Peace. Peace. Peace. Peace." Photo by Thorne Anderson.
The hundreds of Iraqis at St. Joseph's listened intently to Etchegaray's every word as he delivered a message from the pope.

"Peace? Who doesn't talk about it today everywhere in the world without thinking about the huge threats that weigh on Iraq," Etchegary asked. "Who does not desire peace? But how many among them think that it is still possible? How many truly want it with all their will?"

He told the church that as he drove on the road from Amman, Jordan to Baghdad, he heard the Muslim call to prayer. At the same time, he said, he was reflecting on Psalm 9 from the Old Testament: "Why God do you hide yourself in our days of anguish? Rise up God, extend your hand. Do not forget the poor."

Several times, he referred to the suffering of Iraqis and the theme of his message was one of believing that peace was possible.

"How many see in prayer something other than a refuge during hours of panic? Something other than a simple alibi from human engagement? Today, this night, here, we pray for peace in Iraq."

After the cardinal finished his prepared statement, he looked out at the congregation, raised his hands and repeated in Arabic "Salaam, Salaam." Peace, Peace.

The church erupted with applause and cheering, followed by rhythmic clapping and whistling. Cardinal Etchegaray's visit to Baghdad hasn't dramatically increased hope that peace will indeed prevail. But it did send a message to Iraq's Christians that they are not forgotten.

But with the Muslim celebration of Eid coming to an end and tensions rising in Baghdad from fears that an attack is not far off, the service at times weaved between the excitement of hearing the papal call for peace and looks of sadness and panic on the faces of the people.

Iraqi Christians light candles for peace in Baghdad following a mass led by Roger Cardinal Etchegary, senior advisor to Pope John Paul II. The cardinal was dispatched to Iraq as a special envoy from the Vatican to support efforts to avoid war and to meet with the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein. Photo by Thorne Anderson.
The atmosphere inside the church was intense. Many Iraqis knelt for sustained periods in the aisles, eyes closed, clasping their hands in prayer. Beautiful Arabic hymns filled the church and parents lined up to kiss the Cardinal's ring and have their children blessed. At times, the mass had the eerie feel that the papal envoy was administering the last rites to the congregation.

The Vatican appears to be stepping up its efforts at reaching a peaceful solution to the crisis. Later this week, Tariq Aziz is scheduled to meet the Pope in Rome. John Paul II has added his voice to the growing chorus against a war on Iraq. But it is unlikely that George W Bush will listen. His own Methodist church has come out against an attack on Iraq and Bush won't even meet with its leaders.

"The Cardinal spoke good," said one Iraqi Muslim. "But for America that is not important."





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Jeremy Scahill is an independent journalist, who reports for the nationally syndicated Radio and TV show Democracy Now! He is currently based in Baghdad, Iraq, where he and filmmaker Jacquie Soohen are coordinating Iraqjournal.org, the only website providing regular independent reporting from the ground in Baghdad.


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