Church leader urges Iraqi Christians to quit country

Archbishop Athanasios Dawood: "If they stay they will be finished one by one"

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A senior Iraqi Christian has called on believers to quit the country, after gunmen targeted a church in Baghdad.

Archbishop Athanasios Dawood, who is based in the UK, made his appeal during a service at the Syrian Orthodox Church in London.

The archbishop said Christians had been without protection since the US-led invasion in 2003.

At least 52 people died as security forces stormed a Catholic church in Baghdad to free dozens of hostages.

A number of gunmen entered Our Lady of Salvation in the city's Karrada district during Mass on Sunday 31 October, sparking an hours-long stand-off.

The militants made contact with the authorities by mobile phone, demanding the release of al-Qaeda prisoners and also of a number of Muslim women they insisted were being held prisoner by the Coptic Church in Egypt.

After negotiations failed, Iraqi security forces stormed the building, before the gunmen reportedly threw grenades and detonated their suicide vests.

On Sunday, Archbishop Dawood advised all Christians to leave Iraq now al-Qaeda had warned of more attacks there.

Analysis

Before the US-led invasion of Iraq, there were nearly one million Christians there enjoying some protection from Saddam Hussein.

Since 2003, that number has dropped to about 400,000. Most of those that fled are now living in neighbouring countries.

About 10,000 Iraqi Christians now live in the UK. Their leader is Archbishop Athanasios Dawood and he presides over the Syrian Orthodox Church in west London.

Archbishop Dawood is one of many in his congregation who have lost several members of their family back in Iraq as al-Qaeda and other insurgents target Christians.

The archbishop now says it is no longer safe for Christians to stay in Iraq because they are easy targets.

Unlike other groups, they have no militias of their own.

He told the BBC the attack on the church amounted to "genocide" and there was now no place for Christians in Iraq.

"The Christians are weak - they don't have militia, they don't have a (political) party," he said.

"You know, everybody hates the Christian. Yes, during Saddam Hussein, we were living in peace - nobody attacked us. We had human rights, we had protection from the government but now nobody protects us."

He accused the US of not delivering on its promises of democracy and human rights.

"Since 2003, there has been no protection for Christians. We've lost many people and they've bombed our homes, our churches, monasteries," he said.

"Why are we living now in this country, after we had a promise from America to bring us freedom, democracy?"

The archbishop called on the UK government to grant Christian Iraqis asylum, and called on the Iraqi government to protect Christians from militant attacks.

"Before they killed one, one, one but now, tens, tens. If they do that, they will finish us if we stay in Iraq," he added.

Christians - as ethnic Assyrians - have lived in Iraq since the 1st Century, but following the fall of Saddam Hussein, they have become isolated and the Baghdad government has proved unwilling or unable to protect them.

There has been a string of bomb attacks on churches leading many to flee to neighbouring countries.

Church leaders have in the past advised the faithful to stay in Iraq and strengthen their communities, but such is the insecurity, there are signs this policy may be about to change.

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