POPE MEETS TAREK AZIZ; VATICAN DIPLOMATIC EFFORT CONTINUES

VATICAN, Feb 14, 03 (CWNews.com) -- Pope John Paul II met on Friday with Iraqi deputy premier Tarek Aziz, for a heavily anticipated discussion of prospects for avoiding a new military conflict in the Persian Gulf.

Aziz arrived at the Vatican in a tightly guarded motorcade, and-- after a brief welcoming ceremony covered by scores of international journalists-- spoke privately with the Holy Father for about 30 minutes. He later met with the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and with Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican's top foreign-policy official.

The Iraqi leader reportedly brought the Pope a personal message from Saddam Hussein, but the content of that message was not made public.

While Aziz was as the Vatican, the Pope's special envoy, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, remained in Iraq, awaiting an appointment with Saddam Hussein. No date for that meeting has been announced. The cardinal traveled on Friday to Mosul, in the north of Iraq, to  meet with the Chaldean-rite Catholics who are heavily represented in that region.

Prior to his meeting with the Pontiff, Aziz gave reporters a highly partisan description of his mission, saying that he would speak to the Pope about "how to& mobilize all the forces of good against the forces of evil." He claimed that "the Holy Father and the Vatican-- and all believers in God, Muslim and Christian-- are doing their best to stop aggression."

A formal statement from the Vatican, released after the Iraqi leader's visit, described the event in much more measured tones. The Vatican reported that Aziz "wished to give assurance concerning the will of the Iraqi government to cooperate with the international community, especially on the matter of disarmament." The statement also noted that Vatican officials had stressed "the need to faithfully respect, with concrete commitments," the UN resolutions calling for Iraqi disarmament.

The Vatican statement did promise that Catholic leaders would continue to search for peaceful means of resolving the crisis. And it remarked that military action "would add further serious sufferings to those populations, already tried by long years of embargo."

Speaking from Baghdad in a Vatican Radio telephone interview, Cardinal Etchegaray maintained that "there is still an opening toward peace, even if it is now very small." He said that a peaceful resolution would require the "total commitment of all men of good will," and said that he was pleading for such a commitment on the part of "the people, but especially the civil leaders, in Iraq and in the international community."

Cardinal Etchegaray has told reporters that his visit is Iraq is a mission "to the outer edge of hope." He has said that he is not carrying any new concrete plans, nor proposals for mediation, but will do whatever is possible to advance the prospects of peace.

The Vatican efforts to resolve the crisis without warfare will be advanced one more step on February 18, when UN secretary general Kofi Annan visits Rome for meetings with the Pope and with Cardinal Sodano.

Tarek Aziz made the Vatican his first official stop on a tour of Italy. He is scheduled to meet with Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini. Then the Iraqi deputy premier, who is a Chaldean Catholic, will finish his trip with a pilgrimage to Assisi. His encounter with the Pope marked his fourth visit to the Vatican in recent years; he had also visited in 1994, 1995, and most recently in 1998.