Pope Benedict XVI to meet Iraqi premier Al-Maliki

Castel GandolfoPope Benedict XVI, Italy - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki, was expected to invite Pope Benedict XVI to visit his sectarian strife-torn country during talks scheduled later Friday, Iraq's ambassador to the Vatican said.

The meeting, the first between the two, was set to take place at around noon (1000 GMT) at the pontiff's Castel Gandolfo summer residence in the hills south of Rome.

Iraq's ambassador to the Vatican, Albert Edward Ismail Yelda, said al-Maliki would brief the pontiff on the latest developments in Iraq, including efforts by the Shiite Muslim-dominated government to improve security in the country,

The Iraqi premier would also extend an invitation to Benedict to visit Iraq, "as soon as the security situation improves," Yelda was quoted as saying by the Rome-based newspaper L'Occidentale.

Since his election in 2005, Benedict has consistently spoken out on behalf of Iraq's tiny Christian minority whose members have been targeted in numerous terrorist attacks since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.

In November 2007 the pontiff elevated the Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad, Emmanuel Karim-Delly, to the position of cardinal, the first Iraqi to hold the title.

The move was widely seen as an attempt by the pontiff to draw attention to the plight of Iraqi Christians, many of whom have been fleeing their country where the vast majority of the 29 million inhabitants are Muslims.

The mostly Chaldean Christians living in Iraq are estimated to number 600,000 compared to the 1.2 million living in the country before Saddam's overthrow. (dpa)

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