'Exodus' of Iraqi Christians after church attack: UNHCR
The UN refugee agency said Friday an "exodus" of thousands of Iraqi Christians was taking place following a deadly church attack in Baghdad carried out by Al-Qaeda militants at the end of October.
"Since the Baghdad church attack on 31 October, and subsequent targetted attacks, the Christian communities in Baghdad and Mosul have started a slow but steady exodus," said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
"At the moment, with this particular group, we have noticed that there is an exodus taking place," she said, adding that "we know thousands have fled."
Some 44 worshippers, two priests and seven security force personnel, were killed during the seizure of the Baghdad cathedral and ensuing shoot-out when it was stormed by troops.
Around 60 other people were wounded in the bloodbath, and the five militants who carried it out were also killed.
Fleming said the Christians had fled to other parts of Iraq or to neighbouring countries.
"Our offices in neighbouring Syria, Jordan and Lebanon are reporting a growing number of Iraqi Christians arriving and contacting UNHCR for registration and help," she said.
"Churches and NGOS are warning us to expect more people fleeing in the coming weeks," she added.
Fleming also called on host countries not to deport Iraqis seeking protection, as she expressed dismay at Sweden's move to return a group of Iraqis -- including five Christians, this week to Baghdad.
"UNHCR is dismayed that on 15 December, Sweden once again forcibly returned a group of some 20 Iraqis to Baghdad. Among this group... were five Christians originally from Baghdad," she said.
"UNHCR strongly reiterates its call on countries to refrain from deporting Iraqis who originate from the most perilous parts of the country," she stressed.
Iraqi Christians have frequently been the target of violence, with hundreds killed and several churches attacked since the US-led invasion of 2003.
Between 800,000 and 1.2 million Christians lived in Iraq in 2003 but their number has dropped to about 500,000 as many have fled abroad in the face of the violence.
According to witnesses, the October 31 siege began with heavily armed militants bursting into the church during Sunday mass and taking about 80 worshippers hostage. It ended with a raid by Iraqi special forces.
The Islamic State of Iraq, an Al-Qaeda affiliate which has declared all Christians to be legitimate targets, has claimed responsibility for the attack.
© 2010 AFP