Pope tells Iraqi leader Christians need protection

Pope Benedict told Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Friday that minority Christians in Iraq needed more protection but the Iraqi leader assured him that Christians were not being persecuted.

Maliki, who met the pope for 20 minutes at the pontiff's summer residence south of Rome, 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," he added.

The late Pope John Paul 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 U.S.-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 two million refugees who have fled to neighbouring states.

Iraq's small Christian minority has tried to keep out of the Shi'ite-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.

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.