Maliki in Rome to meet Pope Benedict XVI

20082725-pope-m_02.jpgFriday 25 July 2008

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki arrived in Rome on Thursday, ready for a series of meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, due to take place at 11:00 (GMT+2) at the pontiff’s Castel Gandolfo summer residence.

Iraq Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki landed Thursday in Rome where he will meet with his Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi and Pope Benedict XVI, airport news agency Telenews reported.

Accompanied by his defence, interior and industry ministers, Maliki will meet with Berlusconi at 1800 GMT Thursday, before being received by the pope at 0900 GMT Friday, at the pontiff’s Castel Gandolfo summer residence.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the latter meeting held “great significance” given the “problems facing peace throughout the world and in this region so crucial to the Middle East.”

The meeting, which will also involve Vatican secretary of state Tarcisio Bertone, is likely to focus on the “difficult problems facing Catholics and Christians in general” in Iraq.

Lombardi highlighted the flight of Christians “in some ways, forced” from Iraq, but stressed that the country is in the pope’s daily prayers.

In March, the body of Iraq’s kidnapped Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho was found near the northern city of Mosul, prompting warnings of a mass exodus of Christians from Iraq.

Iraq’s Christians, with the Chaldean rite by far the largest community, were said to number as many as 800,000 before the US-led invasion. The number today is believed to have dropped to half that figure due to massive emigration.

Associated with the “Crusader” invaders and regarded as well-off, they are often victims of sectarian violence, killings and kidnappings at the hands of both Sunni and Shiite Islamists, as well as criminal gangs.

On January 6, a series of bombs exploded outside churches and a monastery in Mosul, in an apparently coordinated attack that wounded four people and damaged buildings, as Christians celebrated Epiphany.

Maliki will leave Italy and return to Iraq on Saturday.