Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani with members and head of the Italian senate. Photo: KRP
BARCELONA, Spain – Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani is in Italy for his first meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Friday, where discussions are expected to center on the 30,000 Christians who have sought refuge in the northern enclave that remains the only peaceful portion of Iraq.
Barzani, whose stop in Italy is part of a European tour, will receive an audience with Pope Francis on Friday, the official Vatican Radio reported.
During his visit, he will also be meeting senior Italian officials for discussions on boosting bilateral relations.
The Vatican Radio noted that 30,000 Iraqi Christians had sought refuge in Kurdistan, swelling its small population of Christians living there since before the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and unleashed a wave of sectarian and ethnic violence.
“Kurdistan really is very different from the rest of Iraq,” the Vatican’s Monsignor Raban Alkass said in an interview with the radio. “It is an exception,” he said, comparing it with the “disorder” in the rest of Iraq.
“There is liberty, there is commerce and there are a lot of foreign companies,” he said, educating a foreign audience that usually lumps the calm enclave in northern Iraq with the rest of violence-torn Iraq.
For the Vatican, which is worried that one of the world’s longest continuous Christian communities in the world is vanishing due to violence and emigration across Iraq, the Kurdish safe haven has provided a temporary respite.
Iraq’s Christian community, estimated at 800,000 -1.2 million before the 2003 invasion, has dwindled to less than half that, as al-Qaeda and other Sunni insurgents have targeted the community.
Last Christmas, 38 people were killed in three bombings in Baghdad’s Christian areas, including a car bomb that exploded as worshippers were leaving mass.
In October 2010, al-Qaeda fighters and suicide bombers stormed into a Baghdad church during Sunday mass, massacring 44 worshippers, including two priests and several children.
The Italian ambassador to Iraq, Massimo Marotti, said in a recent meeting with Barzani that his country plans to upgrade its consular office in Erbil to a full consulate general by the end of this year. He added that since his first arrival in Iraq as ambassador, the number of Italian companies has doubled in the country.
Barzani has expressed an equal interest in luring more Italian businesses and investors to Kurdistan.
The Kurdish president arrived in Italy from France, where he met President Francois Hollande and other senior officials.
Barzani and other Kurdish leaders have been trying to drum up support from Europe in their rows with the Shiite Arab central government in Baghdad.
Tensions between Baghdad and Erbil heightened this year, after the central government opposed Kurdish oil exports and froze the autonomous region’s monthly budget. Meanwhile, Kurdish leaders have threatened to go for a referendum on splitting from Iraq if Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki runs for a third term.