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With Christians increasingly targets of violence, Italy's Foreign Minister makes their safety a centerpiece of his Baghdad trip. Fate of Iraq's best-known Christian, former Saddam aide Tariq Aziz, also on agenda.


Baghdad - Pressed by Italy's Foreign Minister, Iraq has announced that it will form a parliamentary commission to investigate the recent spate of killings of Christians, and establish a special police task-force to guarantee that Christians are protected from future violence.


Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who met over the weekend with Premier Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi officials in Baghdad, said that he has received reassurances over the fate of Christians in the predominantly Muslim country. Christians have been the target of violence and persecution since the U.S-led invasion of 2003.

In the deadliest assault against Christians to date, an Oct. 31 attack killed more than 50 people at a Catholic cathedral in the Iraqi capital."I have received important reassurances from premier al-Maliki, from the foreign minister, (Hoshyar) Zebari, from the president, (Jalal) Talabani, over the fact that Christians are a fundamental part of Iraqi culture and history," Frattini said after the meetings.


"There's a common commitment that everything should be done to prevent Christians from leaving Iraq," added Frattini. "If they did leave, that would be a sign that the terrorists had won."

Frattini made the protection of Christians a priority of his trip to Iraq, with increasing attention in Italy and at the Vatican since the Oct. 31 massacre. Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly expressed concern over the status of the Christian community in Iraq and their exodus from the region. On Sunday, speaking from St. Peter's Square for his traditional Angelus prayer, Benedict condemned religious intolerance: "the attacks that continuously take place in Iraq against Muslims and Christians, and violence in Egypt and Eritrea."

In Baghdad, Frattini said the Iraqi government-promoted parliamentary commission will be presided over by a Christian lawmaker. He said the Iraqi government has also promised to set up police units that include Christian soldiers and officers.

Still, the violence continued, as authorities reported that an elderly Christian couple was shot to death late Sunday inside their Baghdad home.

The situation for Christians in Iraq was at the center of talks between Frattini and his counterpart, Zebari, who said Iraq "will send a positive message out by reconstructing churches and protecting Christians." Zebari said his government's position is clear in rejecting any calls for Christians to leave the country.

Another topic of discussion has proved more controversial – an Italian request for pardon for Tariq Aziz, the No. 2 in Saddam Hussein's regime and for years the international face of Iraq. Aziz, a Christian, has been convicted by an Iraqi court in connection with the persecution of religious parties and faces a death sentence.

Zebari said the ultimate decision rests with Iraqi judges, but insisted Aziz's trial was fair. "All of Aziz's rights have been respected, it wasn't a secret or hidden trial, he had a defense, and everybody should respect the decision of Iraqi courts," the foreign minister said.

The Iraqi president, Talabani, expressed a different view. He said he is "opposed to capital punishment, expecially for Tariq Aziz, who is old and ill." He told Frattini that if Aziz were executed "it would send a negative signal to the Christian community."

Frattini was in Baghdad to inaugurate the new Italian Embassy to Iraq, which has just been moved to a new venue inside the "Green Zone."


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