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Maliki urges return of Iraq's Christians

In Italy, he invites the pope to visit and asks him to encourage those who fled the violence to go back.

July 26, 2008|Ned Parker and Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Prime Minister Nouri Maliki asked Pope Benedict XVI in a meeting Friday in Italy to encourage Iraqi Christians who have fled their country to return, citing the improved security situation. He also invited the pontiff to visit Iraq.

"I . . . appealed to his holiness to encourage Christians who left the country to go back and be part of the social structure of Iraq again," Maliki told reporters after his session with the pope at the pontiff's summer residence in Castel Gandolfo.

More than five years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the country remains deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines and is struggling to put an end to the violence that has characterized the post-Saddam Hussein era.

"His visit would represent support for the efforts of love and peace in Iraq," said Maliki, who has been visiting Germany and Italy this week.

The pope condemned the violence suffered by the Iraqi people and lamented the plight of Iraqi refugees, saying he hoped they could one day return to their homeland. He stressed the importance of inter-religious dialogue and made a special appeal in behalf of Iraq's minority Christians, frequent targets of attacks and kidnappings, saying they were in grave need of better security.

The pope "renewed his condemnation of the violence that hits diverse parts of the country almost every day, without sparing the Christian community, which strongly feels a need for greater security," a statement from the Vatican said.

He also "expressed the hope that Iraq can decisively find the way to peace and development through dialogue and the collaboration of all ethnic and religious groups, including minorities."

Maliki bristled at the notion that Christians were targeted any more than Muslims in Iraq's sectarian violence. Maliki said the pope understands that "bad people exist in all religions, whether Christian or Muslim."

"This sound, realistic, objective understanding by his holiness is the best answer to those who claim that Christians are persecuted in Iraq by Muslims," the prime minister told reporters.

Iraq's Christian minority has been targeted by Sunni Arab militants, who have viewed its members as American allies and heretics. In 2007, Christian residents were expelled from the Baghdad suburb of Dora by Al Qaeda in Iraq sympathizers. In late February, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of the northern city of Mosul was kidnapped; he was found dead two weeks later.

Christian parliament member Younadam Kanna said the situation for Christians in Baghdad had improved in recent months, but the circumstances were still horrible for his faith in Mosul.

"In Mosul, the situation is the same as it used to be and it's getting worse," Kanna said. Before 2003, Iraq's Chaldean Christians were estimated to number about 800,000, but many have fled the country.

Elsewhere, Iraq's minister of youth and sports, Jassim Mohammed Jaffar, said the country was in negotiations with the International Olympic Committee to end a ban on Iraq's athletes participating in the Beijing Games, which open in two weeks. Iraq received a letter Thursday from the IOC saying its athletes were banned because the Iraqi government had dismissed the country's Olympic committee.

"We are optimistic," Jaffar said. "There is a broad movement to solve the problem."

The U.S. military said Friday that its soldiers accidentally killed the 14-year-old son of a local newspaper editor in the northern city of Kirkuk. The boy, Arkan Ali Taha, was trapped in the middle of a gun battle Wednesday when soldiers were fired on from a taxi, the military said.

In the Shiite Muslim shrine city of Karbala, southwest of Baghdad, a bomb left on a minibus exploded and wounded nine Iraqis, a Health Ministry official said.

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ned.parker@latimes.com

wilkinson@latimes.com

Parker reported from Baghdad and Wilkinson from Rome. Times staff writer Saif Hameed in Baghdad and special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf contributed to this report.

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