BAGHDAD (AFP) â€” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini urged the Iraqi government to protect minorities, namely Christians who have suffered a wave of killings, during a surprise visit to Baghdad on Thursday.
He also visited Baghdad’s national museum, which was ransacked and looted after the fall of the capital in April 2003 but is being slowly rebuilt with Italian aid and supervision.
“I thank Hoshyar Zebari for his remarks on the protection of minorities in Iraq, which is very important for Italy,” Frattini said at a joint news conference with the Iraqi foreign minister.
Zebari said earlier that the Iraqi government is “striving to protect our Christian brothers in Mosul and other regions in Iraq.”
More than 2,000 Christian families fled Mosul in October after a wave of killings in Iraq’s third largest city, which US and Iraqi commanders consider the last urban bastion of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Since the US-led invasion of 2003, more than 200 Iraqi Christians have been killed across Iraq and a string of churches attacked, with the violence intensifying in recent months, particularly in the north.
Around 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq at the time of the invasion, but the number has since shrunk by around a third or more as members of the minority community have fled the country, according to Christian leaders.
“We have confirmed to our guest that the policy of the Iraqi government is based on the desire for peaceful coexistence and active participation of all Iraqis,” Zebari said at the news conference.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said last week that some Christians were starting to return, with around one-third of the families in one district having come back to their homes.
After the press conference Frattini and Zebari toured Baghdad’s national museum, which was looted in the weeks after the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
An Italian consortium partnered with an Iraqi contractor has restored the Islamic Hall and the Assyrian Hall, where a newly installed archway connects two massive stone slabs depicting winged beasts with bearded human heads.
“It is one fantastic museum and Italy is very proud for having contributed by taking the lead in these restorations,” Frattini told AFP, adding that his country would carry out similar projects in other Iraqi museums.
Iraqi authorities have recovered 6,000 artefacts from the estimated 15,000 that were stolen or destroyed in 2003, according to the antiquities ministry.
“This is the mind of the people, the heart of the people. Its heritage and culture are very deeply-rooted,” Zebari told AFP. He and other Iraqi officials said they hoped to reopen the museum soon but gave no fixed date.