Iraq

News Feature: Iraqi Christians flee pre-election violence

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Mosul_(dpa) _ Hazim Jarjis, the priest at the Mar Afram church in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, is a worried man.

Armed groups have repeatedly targeted his flock, he said, "in an attempt to distance them from their Iraqi brothers."

"It's very dangerous," he told the German Press Agency dpa.

Police in the city on Thursday revealed they had found the bodies of two brothers, both Christians, the previous night. The pair, shot to death, were the latest casualties in a string of attacks against Christians in the villages around Mosul, police said.

"The goal behind these crimes is to chase away the Christians of Iraq, and of Nineveh province in particular, for political ends," Jarjis said.

"The church of Mar Afram has received threats from some militants, calling for us to leave the city within the coming weeks ahead of the March 7 parliamentary elections," he told dpa.

"The Iraqi government must increase its protection of churches and places where there are many Christians. They need to send more security guards, police and soldiers," said Father Aishwa, of the church of Mar Kukis, north of Mosul.

"There are so many political problems between the various blocs and parties here. Without a doubt, Christians bear the brunt of these problems," he added.

Roughly 750,000 Christians live in Mosul, most of them from the Chaldean sect, though there are pockets of adherents to the Eastern Orthodox, Assyrian, and Catholic churches.

They have lived in the area for hundreds of years, and the churches they have constructed over the centuries are among the district's greatest architectural landmarks.

Everyone in Mosul concurs that the Chritian community was much larger before the US-led invasion in 2003, but that thousands have since fled the country, or have left for the quieter, semi-autonomous Kurdish provinces to the east of Nineveh - fleeing threats and intimidation from militant groups.

Violence against the community has come in waves, with each wave prompting hundreds more Christian families to flee. Most recently, in the months ahead of the January 2009 provincial elections, more than 430 Christian families fled the region after six Christians were murdered and bombings targeted a nunnery northeast of Mosul, local Christian leaders say.

"The number of attacks against Christians and churches in such a short time in Mosul has warned many here that they are targets once again," said William Warda, a spokesman for the Assyrian Democratic Movement, adding that many of the attacks against the community have targeted Christian-run alcohol stores and hair salons.

In the face of these attacks, Warda said, "Many Christians prefer to flee to safe areas where they can practice their rites and rituals with greater freedom." dpa ag ka zar mt

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