Pope, Iraqi Foreign Minister Meet to Discuss Religious Freedom

Pope Benedict XVI met with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari on Thursday to discuss the situation in Iraq, including its new constitution, the importance of ensuring religious freedom, and reconstruction for the nation.

Their talks came as negotiations for a new constitution between rival factions in Iraq failed to reach a compromise for the third time on Thursday. The stalled negotiations could mean that a referendum could be called for Oct. 15 where voters would get to decide on the constitution instead of parliament.

The pair met in the hillside town of Castel Gandolfo just outside Rome where the Pope has been spending the summer.

“In the course of the meeting, the current situation in Iraq was reviewed, with special focus on the draft constitution now before the National Assembly for approval and on the issue of religious freedom,” according to a statement released by Vatican Spokesman Fr. Ciro Benedettini.

Some Christian groups have expressed concern over the current preliminary draft of Iraq's constitution because it states "no law can be against the provisions of Islam.”

However, according to the Associated Press, Zebari said the latest constitutional draft has Islam as "a primary source, but not the only source" of law.

Despite this, some church leaders are fearful that if Islamic law is given a position in the constitution, Christians and other non-Muslims will face the same kind of discrimination and second-class status which they experience in other countries where the law is based on Islamic law, or Shari’a.

The current draft constitution also contains clauses that could affect women's rights, such as marriage, divorce and inheritance.

Another topic of conversation, as reported by Fr. Benedettini in the statement, was the reconstruction for post-war Iraq.

“The discussion also stressed how the rebuilding of institutions must come about in a climate of dialogue with the involvement of all religious groups and the various sectors of society."

Archbishop Fernando Filoni, the Vatican's apostolic nunzio in Baghdad, told Vatican Radio the meeting was an "important moment" in its relations with Iraq. According to AP, he said Rome was able to learn about key aspects of the proposed constitution concerning religious freedom and relations between Muslims and Christian minorities.

After the meeting with the Pope, Iraq’s foreign minister also met with Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, according to the statement.

Currently, Christians in Iraq form 3 percent the nation's 26 million people.