Pope Benedict told Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Friday that minority Christians in Iraq needed more protection but the Iraqi leader assured the pontiff that Christians were not being persecuted. Maliki, who met the pope for 20 minutes at the pontiff’s summer residence south of Rome, invited him to visit Iraq, saying a trip there would help the process of peace and reconciliation.
“We renewed our invitation for His Holiness to visit Iraq. He welcomed the invitation. And we hope that he will be making the visit as soon as he can,” he told reporters in the palace after the meeting.
“His visit would represent support for the efforts of love and peace in Iraq,” he added.
The late Pope John Paul II wanted to visit Iraq in 2000 but was denied permission by the government of Saddam Hussein.
Maliki said he and the pope also 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 neighboring 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 in Iraq.
The Archbishop of Mosul of Iraq’s largest Christian denomination, the Chaldean Catholics, was abducted in the northern city in February and found dead two weeks later.
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,” 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.
Maliki also said on Friday that any US troop withdrawal would have to satisfy both parties and protect Iraq’s sovereignty.
Maliki, who earlier this month suggested that a timetable may be set for the departure of US troops, would not be drawn on any specific dates when asked by reporters after meeting Pope Benedict at the pontiff’s summer residence.
“There is a dialogue between us and the multinational forces, and we hope that we can reach results that satisfy both parties and protect the achievements made in Iraq and protect the sovereignty of Iraq,” Maliki said
US troop levels are a key battleground in November’s US presidential election, and Democratic contender Barack Obama has pledged to remove troops within 16 months of taking office should he win the election.
In Iraq on Friday, Baghdad has ramped up security ahead of one of the most important Shiite religious festivals amid heightened concerns of attacks on a holy pilgrimage site, the Iraqi military said.
An extra 5,000 soldiers fanned out in the Kazimiyya district of Baghdad ahead of the arrival of thousands of pilgrims expected to attend a ceremony on Tuesday to mourn a revered imam who died 12 centuries ago.
“There is more than a full brigade deployed in the vicinity, entrances and exits of the city, and in the surrounding areas of Kazimiyya city, for fear of attacks,” Defense Ministry officials told AFP.
Kazimiyya was the site of a deadly stampede on a Baghdad bridge in 2005, when nearly 1,000 Iraqis, many of them women and children, were trampled to death as they converged on the mosque for the festival and were sent into panic by rumors of suicide bombers in their midst.
Soldiers have cordoned off the northern Baghdad district, not allowing traffic in, while pedestrians – especially women – were being subjected to strict security searches, the Defense Ministry official said.
The stepped-up measures came despite the levels of violence nationwide hitting a four-year low, but after a woman suicide bomber attacked a Sunni Arab security patrol on Thursday in central Baqouba, killing eight people and wounding 20.
The female suicide bomber blew herself up as a Sahwa (Awakening) patrol passed in Baqouba in eastern Iraq, police and medical sources said.
The attack was in the central New Baqouba neighborhood and targeted a Sahwa patrol of Iraqi forces – former insurgents recruited to fight Al-Qaeda in Iraq and paid by the US military.
One of the dead was local Sahwa leader Naim al-Dulaimi, police said, while medical sources said women and children were among the wounded.
Awakening groups, whose members are each paid a sum of $300 a month by the US military, have contributed to a reduction in violence across Iraq in recent months.
But Diyala province, of which Baquba is the capital, remains one of the most dangerous regions in the country. It was in Diyala that the phenomenon of women suicide bombers first appeared.
Military sources have indicated that the Iraqi army is preparing to launch a huge offensive involving 30,000 men in Diyala province, which remains a bastion of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. – Reuters, AFP