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Christian Member of Saddam Hussein’s Government, Tariq Aziz, Dies in Prison

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John Burger - published on 06/05/15 - updated on 06/07/17

Former deputy prime minister tried to enlist John Paul II's help before US invasion

Weeks before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, carried out on the pretext that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, a member of the Baghdad government paid a visit to Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. Tariq Aziz, Hussein’s deputry prime minister, was trying to make the case with European  leaders that support for a US-led war against Iraq would be perceived by many Muslims around the world as an assault on their faith and could have terrible consequences, the Washington Post explained. 

“If other countries, especially here in Europe — the Christian countries — if they participate in such a war of aggression, it will be interpreted by the Arab and Muslim world as a crusade against the Arabs and against Islam,” Aziz said at the time.

Pope John Paul was, perhaps, one of the few world leaders willing to listen. He called on Western powers, including the US, to resist going to war. 

"No to war!" the Pope said during an annual address to diplomatic emissaries to the Vatican in January of that year. He urged world leaders to try to resolve disputes with Iraq through diplomatic means instead. War in Iraq, he warned, would be a "defeat for humanity."

Aziz’s mission to Rome failed, ultimately, and two weeks after the invasion in March, he surrendered to the United States. When the 79-year-old died of a heart attack Friday at a hospital in the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, he was serving a prison sentence for the persecution of Shiite Muslims following an aborted uprising at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He had also been convicted of involvement in the execution of 42 Baghdad merchants who had been accused of raising food prices when Iraq was under sanctions imposed by the UN after the 1991 conflict. ​Attorneys noted that he was out of the country on a diplomatic mission when the executions were carried out.

For Aziz, the visit to Pope John Paul had a very different outcome from two decades earlier, when he managed to enlist American support for Baghdad in its long-running war with Iran. 

Aziz may have had an advantage on the international scene as a Christian Iraqi with in-dept knowledge of the West. But in Saddam’s Iraq he was a relatively minor figure. 

"A Chaldean Christian by birth and a college graduate, he was an outsider in Hussein’s overwhelmingly Sunni tribal and poorly educated clique," the Post obituary noted. "In diplomatic settings, Mr. Aziz could come off as witty and charming, though he was an obstinate defender of his nation’s brutal policies."

He was born born Mikha’il Yuhanna in a village outside Mosul, Iraq, in 1936, and grew up speaking Aramaic, said the obit, quoting an expert who speculated that he changed his name to "prove his Arabism." 

After university, in the early 1960s, he became a journalist and joined the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, supporting Hussein when the party regained power later in the decade.

In the wake of the first Gulf War, he lobbied the international community to lift the tough sanctions against Iraq, a position that many in the Catholic Church also supported. 

IraqPope John Paul II
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