Iraq Vows to Protect Religious Freedom and Christian Community

Iraq’s Minister of Foreign Affairs vowed that his country would protect religious freedom, particularly the Iraqi Christian community, during a meeting with Pope John Paul II on Monday. According to a Vatican spokesman, the situation in Iraq and the Middle East in general was examined in the course of the conversations.

"The minister thanked his holiness and his aides for the help they have always demonstrated toward Iraq and he confirmed his government's commitment to promote religious freedom and, in particular, to defend Christian communities," said a statement released Tuesday by Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls after the meeting.

According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), Minister Hoshyar Zebari also met the Vatican's number two official, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, for talks that centered on current developments in Iraq and the Middle East.

“In the discussions, the painful scourge of terrorism was deplored once again, in the hopes for a speedy return to respecting for moral values which are the basis of all civilizations," the spokesman said.

Sources say the string of increasing violence directed at Iraq's Christian minority has led to the destruction of places of worship and the building exodus of its 800,000 or so members.

In the most recent violence against Iraq’s minority Christian community, witnesses say gunmen attacked two churches in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Dec. 7, forcing people to leave and setting off explosions inside the buildings that caused damage but no personal harm.

Last month, masked men detonated a bomb near an Orthodox Church in southern Baghdad, killing three people and wounding 34. In October, five Baghdad churches were attacked, causing damage but no casualties. And in August, similar attacks killed at least 10 and wounded nearly 50 Iraqi Christians.

The attacks follow an outbreak of insurgent violence across Iraq as the country nears its first democratic elections, slated for January.