World Leaders Consult Vatican Over War

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Threat of Iraq War Draws World Leaders, With Different Views, to the Pope's Door


OME, Feb. 21 - Two weeks ago, it was Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister. Last week, it was Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister of Iraq. On Saturday, if they keep to the schedule, it will be Tony Blair, the British prime minister.

As the prospect of an American-led military strike against Iraq looms ever larger, world leaders are beating an increasingly well-worn path to Pope John Paul II's door to talk about the wisdom of, and rationale for, war.

In the process, they are demonstrating a faith, or at least hope, in the power of the pope to sway international opinion and the power of a visit with him to reflect well on their own positions.

"We are witnessing the latest and greatest global debate in a long time on what would and would not be a just war," said Michael Emerson, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. "So the moral authority of the pope is being solicited by both sides."

John Paul has repeatedly stated his opposition to a war in Iraq under current circumstances, and his conversations with world leaders, including a meeting here this week with the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, allow the pope to press his case.

But while the world leaders themselves usually request these meetings, often when they are here on other business, the Vatican has its own interests. Those include a commitment to peace as well as the protection of Catholic and Christian minorities in predominantly Muslim countries, including Iraq.

The meetings themselves are intensely private: none of the participants ever disclose enough to make clear precisely what, or how much, the pope says.

But Vatican City serves as a singular stage for the officials who travel there. Western diplomats assigned to the Vatican say world leaders who meet with the pope are clearly seeking to cast their concerns and deliberations in a high-minded light.

"The pope is such a respected figure, with such great moral authority and prestige, that for anyone to come and visit him gives them a lot of illumination and, in some cases, for those who need it, legitimacy," said R. James Nicholson, the American ambassador to the Holy See.

Mr. Aziz held a news conference after he saw the pope, making prominent mention of that meeting.

Mr. Fischer, too, spoke to reporters after his visit, saying he and the pope had had a "very serious and very open talk" about the consequences for civilians of a war in Iraq, which Germany opposes. "With our deep worries and our deep skepticism, we are very close," he said, referring to German and Vatican officials.

Mr. Blair finds himself at odds with the Vatican about the justification for such a military strike against Iraq.

But foreign policy experts and diplomats said that with a visit to the pope, he would send a message that he was not dodging moral considerations in coming to a belief about the possible need for military action. Mr. Blair, a Christian whose wife is Roman Catholic, has repeatedly talked about the moral case for a war.

While President Bush has not sought an audience with the pope, Mr. Nicholson last week arranged a visit to the Vatican and a public speech here by Michael Novak, a conservative American theologian who maintains that a war would be morally defensible.

The meetings with the pope show that he is not just the titular leader of an estimated one billion Catholics worldwide. He remains, in Western democracies, a religious leader with unrivaled recognition: a point of reference in debates with clear moral dimensions.

The meetings also show the depths of the Vatican's objections to war in Iraq. Its diplomatic efforts have included a recent trip by a papal envoy to Baghdad.

Vatican officials, diplomats assigned to the Vatican and church experts said the Vatican's concerns went beyond a frequently stated conviction that in the case of Iraq, efforts for a peaceful resolution have not been exhausted.

Vatican officials are worried about the effects of a war in Iraq on relations between Christians and Muslims, a matter that the pope mentioned during brief public remarks today.

"They really don't want Christian martyrs," said a Western diplomat assigned to the Vatican. For example, the diplomat said, "there's a huge Christian minority in Pakistan that could be at risk."

The Rev. Drew Christiansen, former director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office of International Justice and Peace, said the pope and his officials were also looking beyond current events and trying to lay down ideological and moral markers.

"It's a rejection of the underlying rationale for war as preventive," Father Christiansen said.

Vatican officials conceded that in the end, they might not be able to influence what the United States and its allies do. But they said they nonetheless saw themselves playing a crucial and special role in the debate, a perspective that the visits of world leaders at least partly affirm.

"There is an advantage for the Holy See in that it is not aligned," said Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. "So its interest is on behalf of humanity."