Pope Speaks Out For Catholic Iranians (VIDEO)

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VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI urged Iranian authorities on Thursday to let Catholics have the priests and churches they need to freely practice their faith in the country.

In comments to Iran's new ambassador to the Holy See, Benedict also urged Tehran to improve the situation of all Christian minorities so they are better integrated into society.

Human rights reports and Western governments say Christians in Iran, like other minorities including Jews and Zoroastrians, suffer arrests as well as discrimination by being kept out of some jobs. The United States has labeled Iran a country of particular concern for abuse of religious worshippers.

Benedict didn't mention international concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions in a speech accepting Ambassador Ali Akbar Naseri's credentials. But the ambassador referred to the issue, saying Tehran fully respected international norms but protested efforts to block its right to pursue a nuclear program for peaceful purposes.

The ambassador also complained to the pope about what he said was the increasing spread of "Islamophobia" in the West and boasted that Iran's presidential elections -- sharply criticized internationally -- showed that it embraced the principles of democracy.

Iran and the Holy See have had diplomatic relations for more than 50 years.

Before the 1979 Islamic revolution there were some 300,000 Catholics in Iran. By 2005, emigration had reduced their numbers to around 25,000, divided among the Chaldean, Armenian and Latin churches, the ANSA news agency said.

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