Iraqi Official Joins Franciscans for Prayers

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz urged the world to "resist war and the intentions of aggression" during a visit Saturday to the hilltown of Assisi, known for its messages of peace.

Aziz, a Chaldean Christian, participated in a series of peace prayers with Franciscan friars in Italy on a day when hundreds of thousands of people around the world rallied against a possible war against Baghdad.

"My message is peace," Aziz said outside the Basilica of St. Francis after the prayer. "The people of Iraq want peace. And millions of people around the world are demonstrating for peace, so let us all work for peace and resist the war and the intentions of aggression."

Outside the basilica, the word "pax" — Latin for "peace" — was written with shrubs in a flowerbed.

The Rev. Enzo Fortunato, a spokesman for the Franciscans, said Aziz's visit to the tomb of St. Francis was important because "the world needs images of peace to conquer the images of war."

When asked whether Aziz might use the visit for political purposes, Fortunato replied: "Whoever comes to Assisi can call himself a man of peace, but he is called to realize, with concrete gestures, that which he proclaims."

Aziz insisted after meeting with Pope John Paul II on Friday that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and, after the latest report from U.N. weapons inspectors, promised greater cooperation with arms searches.

The pope has been outspoken in his opposition to war but has also insisted on Iraqi compliance with U.N. resolutions. He sent his envoy, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, to Baghdad this week with a personal message for President Saddam Hussein.

Etchegaray met with Saddam on Saturday and said afterward that the Church was serving as the "moral conscience" of humanity in opposing war and insisting on a peaceful outcome of the crisis.

"For ultimately, it is conscience that will have the last word, stronger than any strategy, ideology, and even every religion," he said in a statement released by the Vatican.

At a press conference Friday, Aziz warned Europeans against supporting Washington in a war against Iraq, saying the impact would be felt across the Arab world.

"When anything happens in Europe, it affects us in the Middle East, in the Arab world," he said. "Therefore, the Europeans should be very careful when they say 'we support George Bush' because they encourage him to do mischief, to make aggression. They should not."

On Saturday, Aziz took part in the simple ceremony at the tomb of St. Francis, an intimate, stone chapel decorated with fragrant lilies under the lower basilica of the main church.

Assisi has long been associated with St. Francis' message of peace, and the pope last year held a daylong, inter-religious peace prayer service in Assisi in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In the ceremony, Aziz joined the clergy in two symbolic gestures: holding an oil peace lamp and being shown an ivory horn that was presented to St. Francis in 1219 by the then-sultan of Egypt, Melek el-Kamel.

The lantern was the same one used by participants in the pope's peace day and recalled his message urging all believers to be "lights of peace," while the horn is a symbol of friendship between peoples, the Franciscans said.

"We are convinced that war has never resolved the problems of humanity," Assisi Bishop Sergio Goretti told the small gathering. "We condemn every form of terrorism ... and the construction of weapons of mass destruction."

Aziz also signed a book on the altar that the Franciscans said was a commitment to peace, writing: "May God the Almighty grant peace to the people of Iraq and the whole world. Amen."

Those gathered then read a prayer issued by John Paul last year in Assisi: "Violence never again! War never again! Terrorism never again! In God's name, may all religions bring upon earth justice and peace, forgiveness, life and love."

Aziz joined the friars for a lunch of cheese pastry and fennel salad, ravioli with truffles — a specialty of the region — veal with artichokes, salad, fruit and sweets. He then took a private tour of the spectacular frescoes in the upper basilica.

Aziz is to leave Italy on Sunday.