Pope Benedict XVI urged the world to help Iraqis who have fled their country and called for better protection for Christians inside Iraq during talks Friday with Iraq's prime minister, although the Iraqi leader assured him that Christians were not being persecuted.
The struggle against terrorism and the need for religious freedom also were central issues in the talks with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman.
Maliki, who is on a European tour, met with Benedict for 20 minutes at the pontiff’s vacation palace south of Rome.
A Vatican communiqué said a key theme was the need to assist Iraqi refugees, who both men hope will return to their country.
The plight of Christians
Benedict has frequently expressed concern about the plight of Christians caught in sectarian violence in Iraq.
Maliki invited the pontiff 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," Maliki added.
The late Pope John Paul wanted to visit Iraq in 2000 but was denied permission by the government of Saddam Hussein.
The Vatican statement said the Christian community in Iraq "strongly feels the need for more security."
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 U.S.-led invasion. But Christian clergy and churches have been targeted repeatedly by Sunni militant groups linked to al-Qaeda.
The Archbishop of Mosul of Iraq's largest Christian denomination, the Chaldean Catholics, was kidnapped in the northern city in February and found dead two weeks later.
The Vatican said Maliki and Benedict described reconciliation and dialogue between Christians and Muslims as necessary for the rebuilding of 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," Maliki said.
The ANSA news agency quoted Iraq's ambassador to the Holy See as saying there was no mention in the talks of Tariq Aziz, a Christian who was one of Saddam Hussein's best-known lieutenants.
Aziz and seven others could face the death penalty if convicted on a charge of crimes against humanity in connection to the executions of 42 merchants, who were accused by the government of driving up food prices at a time Iraq was under international sanctions.