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Page last updated at 14:46 GMT, Friday, 25 July 2008 15:46 UK

Iraqi Christians urged to return

Pope Benedict XVI and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki exchanged gifts

Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has urged Christians who fled the country after the US-led invasion to return home to help rebuild the country.

Speaking after meeting Pope Benedict XVI in Italy, Mr Maliki said he asked the pontiff to encourage Christians to rejoin Iraq's social structure.

Nearly half of Iraq's estimated 800,000 Christians are believed to have left the country since 2003.

Many of those who remain have been targeted by Sunni Muslim militias.

Churches and clergymen have come under attack, as Sunni and Shia groups have battled for supremacy.

Mr Maliki said he urged the Pope "to encourage Christians who left the country to go back and be part of the social structure of Iraq again".

He also confirmed he had invited the 81-year-old pontiff to visit Iraq.

"We hope that he will be making the visit as soon as he can. His visit would represent support for the efforts of love and peace in Iraq," he said.

Mr Maliki and the Pope met at the pontiff's Castel Gandolfo summer residence.

The Vatican released a statement saying they had discussed the situation of "many refugees inside and outside the country who need help, in particular with regards to their return".

The two men also issued a renewed condemnation of the continuing violence in Iraq, where Christian communities "strongly feel the need for greater security", the Vatican statement added.

The late Pope John Paul II wanted to visit Iraq in 2000 but was denied permission by the government of Saddam Hussein.



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