Rome (AKI) -- Lionan Daved, a self assured financial consultant for the past 28 years, says she is used to mumbling her name these days so people won't understand she is Christian. She is also used to hiding the cross pendant she always wears on her neck and to wearing a head scarf on her frequent trips from her hometown Kirkuk to Baghdad where she works as a financial advisor to coalition forces in Iraq. "We don't even go to Church to pray anymore because it is too dangerous," she told Adnkronos International (AKI) in a recent interview in Rome.
Daved is in Italy with a group of Iraqi women to attend a two-week training course on federalism promoted by the Italian foreign ministry's Task Force Iraq and coordinated by Adnkronos Comunicazione.
Three years after the US ousted Saddam Hussein from power, reports say as many as half the Christians in the country could have fled, driven out by church bombings, murders and death threats targeting their community.
Muslim anger over Pope Benedict XVI's speech in Germany a month ago in which he linked Islam to violence led to a further escalation of attacks targeting Christians. Many churches cancelled services throughout Iraq as extremist groups threatened to kill all Christians unless the pope apologised. Although the pontiff expressed regret that his speech on 12 September at Germany's Regensburg university was "misunderstood", the damages appear significant in Iraq today.
"In our community we decided to hang banners saying 'we are not responsible for what he (the pontiff) said' so we wouldn't be targeted," said Daved. "All Christians had to do that in Iraq, we apologised for what he said."
She added that during Sunday services, the priest in her church would "advise us to be patient with Muslims, not to talk about the (pope's) speech nor fight because we were asked all the time by people why he said that."
The number of Christians who have not fled is uncertain. The last Iraqi census in 1987 counted 1.4 million Christians. Many started leaving the country in the 1990s when sanctions were imposed on the country.
Today many more have left. Yonadan Kanna, the only Christian member of the Iraqi Parliament, was quoted as saying by the New York Times this week that Christians in Iraq are around 800,000, approximately 3 percent of the population. Catholic News Service quoted a Chaldean Catholic auxiliary bishop, Andreas Abouna, as saying this earlier this year that only 600,000 had remained.
"It is very difficult and in Baghdad and the south the situation is terrible," said Daved. "More Christians left because after what the pope said the situation got worse. When they had to pray they risked an attack. They even killed our priests. Many Christians have left for Syria, Jordan and Turkey but, still, it's difficult to migrate and many want to stay."
Church attendance has dropped in Iraq and at least 60 percent of Baghdad's churches have closed after receiving threats from fundamentalists since the pontiff's speech, the UN's IRIN news service reports.
In the northern city of Mosul, a priest from the Syriac Orthodox Church was kidnapped last week. His community complied with the abductors' request and publicly apologised for the pope's remarks on Islam - to no avail. The beheaded body of Boulos Iskander Behnam was found on Wednesday - the latest member of the community to be killed there.
"The pressure is really strong on Christians right now and the situation is hard to bear," Najla Hanna Rawoof, an attorney who lives in Mosul, told AKI. "I am forced to wear the veil all the time and not to make others notice I am Christian. This is why many Christians leave Iraq or move to places where there are more Christians, like Kurdistan."
Hanna Wisal, a teacher in Mosul, who is also attending the federalism training course in Italy, said "Christians have moved to the Christian areas of Kurdistan."
Many have taken refuge in the town of Aain Kawa, near Erbil, in the Kurdish north, which is believed to be the main centre for internally displaced Christians. Though no official data is available on the number of refugees in the area, religious leaders say thousands have moved there.
In Baghdad, the Dora and Karrada neighbourhoods once heavily populated with Christians, are now reportedly empty. Yet, though the south is more dangerous for Christians - said Daved, Rawoof and Wisal - Mosul and Kirkuk in the north are also witnessing a rise in threats and killings.
Wisal told AKI she has never experienced problems as she lives in a Christian area of Mosul. But her sister, who attends Mosul university lives a difficult situation, she says.
In Mosul, where both Baathists and Islamist groups reportedly control entire neighbourhoods, a Christian woman from Mosul university was recently abducted and then beheaded.
The kidnappers said that "if anyone comes to college without hijab [headscarf], they risk their lives," she said.