Pope Benedict XVI has told Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that minority Christians in Iraq need more protection but the Iraqi leader assured him that Christians were not being persecuted.
Mr Maliki, who met the Pope for 20 minutes at the pontiff’s summer residence south of Rome, invited the pontiff to visit Iraq, saying a trip there would help the process of peace and reconciliation.
The late Pope John Paul II wanted to visit Iraq in 2000 but was denied permission by the government of Saddam Hussein.
Mr Maliki said he and the Pope discussed the plight of minority Christians in Iraq and the Prime Minister urged those who had left after the US-led invasion in 2003 to return to help rebuild the country.
“I also appealed to His Holiness to encourage Christians who left the country to go back and be part of the social structure of Iraq again,” he said.
A Vatican statement said the Pope condemned all forms of violence “which was not sparing the Christian communities, which strongly feel the need for greater security.”
The statement said the Vatican believed that inter-religious dialogue would be important for the country’s future.
Many of Iraq’s Christians have left the country, among the 2 million refugees who have fled to neighbouring states.
Iraq’s small Christian minority has tried to keep out of the Shiite-Sunni sectarian violence that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis since the 2003 US-led invasion.
But Christian clergy and churches have been targeted repeatedly by Sunni militant groups linked to Al Qaeda.
The Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul was kidnapped in the northern city in February and found dead two weeks later.
Mr Maliki said the Pope understood the inter-religious situation in Iraq.
“He expressed this by saying that bad people exist within all religions, whether Christians or Muslims,” Mr Maliki said.
“This sound, realistic, objective understanding by His Holiness is the best answer to those who claim that Christians are persecuted in Iraq by Muslims,” he said.