Iraqi President Makes Assurances to Pope

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Iraqi President Jalal Talabani met with Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday and sought to assure him that the rights of Christians and other religious minorities are guaranteed under Iraq's new constitution.

The Vatican has expressed concern about the constitution, which promises religious freedom for all, but says Islam is "a fundamental source" of legislation for Iraq. The Vatican fears that any legal system based on Islamic law might not protect the rights of religious minorities.

"I explained to his Holiness that the Iraqi constitution will consider all Iraqis, Christians included, equal, and will respect all religions," Talabani said. "All kinds of freedoms will be guaranteed for all."

He said Benedict asked about the role of Islamic law in Iraq, and Talabani said he explained the situation. "He was satisfied," Talabani said.

The Vatican released no details on the meeting.

However, an Iraqi bishop present at Talabani's news conference questioned the president's assertions, saying the issue of religious freedom under the constitution was problematic.

"It's very dangerous to say that (the legal system) must be compatible with Islamic law," said Bishop Louis Sako of the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. "Either Islam or democracy. You have to choose."

The bishop said Talabani was being "diplomatic" in describing the situation for the pope.

Iraqi Christians number around 800,000 of Iraq's 26 million people. Most belong to the Chaldean Church, an Eastern-rite church that is loyal to the pope.

Talabani, a Sunni Kurd, called on the pope amid tight security that closed down the main boulevard leading to the Vatican. He met privately with Benedict for about 20 minutes in the pope's study.

During the audience, the pope presented Talabani and his delegation with medals. Talabani gave the pope what appeared to be a painting; it was delivered in its packing materials.

The Vatican opposed the war in Iraq, and Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, spoke out strongly against it.

Talabani is on a weeklong visit to Italy.