Roman Catholic Archbishop Gabriel Kassab of Basra in southern Iraq brought a message yesterday to the United States: End the decade-old economic sanctions against his country and the suffering they have brought.
"I want to say that as a witness I saw in many hospitals not even a syringe available to give shots, and there were some operations done without anesthesia," Kassab said yesterday atop the steps of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in downtown Baltimore. "The people and only the people are suffering."
Kassab spoke through a translator, his brother Joseph, a physician living in the Detroit suburbs. Yesterday, Kassab met with Cardinal William H. Keeler. Over the next 10 days, he will travel to Ohio, New York and Michigan. The archbishop said he will continue to talk about the need for food, medicine, school repairs and clean water in his country.
Keeler and six other cardinals wrote a letter to President Clinton in 1998, urging him to find a way to get more humanitarian aid to Iraqi civilians.
A State Department official said yesterday food and medicine are not among the commodities subject to the sanctions, which mostly deal with heavy machinery and tools that could be used to strengthen an army or produce weapons. The sanctions have been in place since the Persian Gulf War.
"There's no limit to the amount of food that can be imported, there's no limit to the amount of medicine that can be imported," the official said. "The nations of the world remain concerned about the well-being of the Iraqi people and are trying to find new ways to help them without giving Saddam Hussein free rein to use the money."
Kassab and Keeler met in March when they were both in Amman, Jordan, to greet Pope John Paul II on his trip to biblical sites in the Middle East. As part of that trip, the Pope had planned to visit Ur, in southern Iraq, the birthplace of Abraham. But unrest related to the sanctions made it too risky to travel to Iraq, Joseph Kassab said.
Iraq, predominantly Muslim, is home to 750,000 Christians.