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 CNS Story:

POPE-IRAQ Dec-13-2004 (390 words) With photo. xxxi

Iraqi foreign minister says government will promote religious freedom

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari thanked Pope John Paul II for the help he always has given the Iraqi people, and he pledged that the country's new government would promote full religious freedom.

The foreign minister met Pope John Paul II Dec. 13, exactly one year after U.S. troops captured Saddam Hussein and less than a week after an Armenian Catholic Church and a Chaldean Catholic bishop's residence were damaged in an attack by armed men.

Zebari also met with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state.

"In the course of the meetings, the situations currently existing in Iraq and in the Middle East in general were reviewed," said a Dec. 13 statement from Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman.

Zebari, he said, assured the pope of "the commitment of his government to promote religious freedom and, particularly, the defense of the Christian communities."

Navarro-Valls said, "The painful plague of terrorism" was condemned during the meetings.

The ongoing fighting in Iraq has included daily terrorist attacks on civilian targets as well as on U.S. and coalition forces.

In addition to the Dec. 7 attacks on Catholic targets, five Christian churches in Baghdad were struck in mid-October, and five Catholic churches were the targets of bombings in August.

Also Dec. 13, Fides, the Vatican's missionary news agency, published an interview with Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk.

The archbishop said he and other religious leaders have asked their faithful to focus on prayers for peace and security at Christmas, rather than hosting parties and receptions.

"We are preparing for the birth of the Lord," Archbishop Sako said. "We will pray and hope that this is a Christmas of peace and love, but there is still much pain in our community and there will not be great festivities.

"Many families have lost relatives or children because of the activity of fundamentalist groups or in the attacks on the churches of Mosul and Baghdad," he said.

With the ongoing mourning and suffering, he said, it did not seem right to celebrate Christmas with the customary parties.

In addition, he said, most Iraqi Muslims could not have big feasts for the end during November of Ramadan, the month of fasting, so giving up the Christian parties is also an act of solidarity.


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