Vatican officials planning itinerary for papal trip to Middle East

ROME — With Pope John Paul II's long-planned visit to the Holy Land confirmed for March, a Vatican delegation is in Baghdad to finalize details of a papal visit to Iraq.

The five-person delegation, headed by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, arrived in Baghdad on Saturday night after a 12-hour, 600-mile journey by road from Amman, Jordan.

Their arrival is the clearest sign to date that the ailing 79-year-old pope may visit Iraq as part of a series of pilgrimages next year marking the Christian millennium.

The pope has said that he wants to visit Ur, revered as the birthplace of Abraham, as part of his pilgrimage to biblical sites. Last year a senior cardinal made a preliminary trip to the site.

The Vatican never officially said that the pope would visit Iraq, but speculation has been rife for months, with unofficial sources saying it would take place in December.

Israel, the United States, Britain, Jewish groups and others are opposed to a visit, saying it could be manipulated by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Though the pope wants his pilgrimage to be a purely religious visit, for protocol reasons it would probably include a meeting with Saddam.

Unofficial sources now say the trip could take place at the end of January, although Vatican sources said last week that a final decision was still up in the air.

The Vatican announced officially on Tuesday of last week that the pope would travel to the Holy Land in the last 10 days of March.

No schedule details were announced immediately, but the trip will probably take place in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem, according to Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe, secretary-general of the Vatican committee planning events for the year 2000.

The visit would be the first papal trip to the Holy Land since Pope Paul VI visited Jerusalem in 1964, and will fulfill a dream held for years by John Paul.

Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders had repeatedly invited the pope to visit, and both welcomed the news that the trip was official.

"The pope's visit is a milestone in the relationship between the Jewish people and Christianity," Israeli Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said in a statement.

But this trip, too, could be controversial due to volatile relations among Jews, Christians and Muslims, and continuing tensions between Israel and the Palestinians over the status of Jerusalem.

The Vatican has frequently stated that it supports some sort of international authority for Jerusalem.

Christian sites in Jerusalem that the pope will probably visit lie in eastern Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of a future Palestinian state. These include the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Mount of Olives.

For Israelis, a papal visit to these sites could be seen as a demonstration of support for Israel's control over eastern Jerusalem, but Palestinians hope the pope will signal support for their position.

Logistics for the trip outside Jerusalem could prove tricky.

Bethlehem, revered as the birthplace of Jesus, is under Palestinian control, and to reach it the pope will probably have to pass through an Israeli checkpoint that Palestinians say deliberately keeps pilgrims away.

In Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, Israel recently granted permission to Muslims to build a mosque next to the Church of the Annunciation. This move angered the Vatican, which issued protests against the move and threatened to drop Nazareth from the papal itinerary.