Blair Urged to Solve Iraqi Crisis Without Stirring "New Divisions"

British Prime Minister’s First Papal Audience at the Vatican

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 23, 2003 ( John Paul II asked British Prime Minister Tony Blair to seek solutions to the Iraqi crisis that would avoid «new divisions» in the international community.

In an official statement following the Saturday meeting, Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls said that in the «cordial conversation» there «was talk of the complex international juncture, with particular reference to the Middle East.»

The Vatican statement revealed that the Pope advocated that «in the solution of the grave situation in Iraq, every effort be made to spare the world new divisions.»

The audience marked the first time the Pope received the Labor leader, who came to power in May 1997.

Following the meeting, which was held in the Pope’s private library, Blair, an Anglican, introduced the Holy Father to his wife, Cherie, a practicing Catholic, and three of the couple’s four children — Euan, 19; Kathryn, 15; and Leo, 3 — all baptized in the Catholic Church.

The British Prime Minister then met with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, who was accompanied by Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, secretary for relations with states.

During the meetings, the Pope and his collaborators confirmed the need «that all interested parties in the noted Iraqi crisis might collaborate with the United Nations and know how to make use of the resources offered by international law to avert the tragedy of a war that from different sides is still believed to be avoidable,» according to the Vatican statement.

«Special consideration was given to the humanitarian situation of the Iraqi people, already harshly tried by long years of embargo,» the statement adds.

Blair is considered as the United States’ greatest ally in a possible military intervention in Iraq. More than 40,000 troops already have been deployed in the Persian Gulf.

In his position, the British Prime Minister is opposed by the leader of the Anglican Church and by primate of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. Last week those religious leaders published a document questioning the «moral legitimacy» of an attack on Iraq.

Following the publication of the Vatican statement on the audience, Blair’s official spokesman said: «We acknowledge the Pope’s concern and we share the desire to avoid war but, ultimately, the decision will be a decision for Saddam.»

The spokesman added that Blair would «launch a final push for peace» this week, but emphasized that U.N. resolutions must be upheld by military action if necessary.

The Vatican statement added: «In the course of the meetings, there was also an exchange of opinions on the future Constitutional Treaty of Europe. On the part of the Holy See, the hope was expressed for explicit recognition of the Churches and communities of believers as well as for the commitment of the European Union to maintain a structured dialogue with them.»

In the traditional exchange of gifts, Blair gave the Pope a reproduction of the famous entrance to the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street, and a little statue of St. Margaret of Scotland. In turn, he received medals of the pontificate.

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