Baghdad (AKI) -- An armed Iraqi group has in recent days begun targeting Christians in the residential al-Doura neighbourhood of Baghdad, according to an interior ministry source quoted by the pan Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat. Information obtained during probes and the interrogation of various terror suspects arrested last week indicate that this group is linked to al-Qaeda and is made up of 200 militiamen, most of them foreigners.
The terror formation has threatened with death any Christian in the mainly Sunni area. To combat the presence of what appears to be an al-Qaeda-linked cell, the Baghdad security forces last week began a series of raids, backed by US combat helicopters, which led to the arrest of various elements of the group.
In a recent interview with Adnkronos International (AKI) a Christian parliamentarian in Iraq's Kurdistan region warned that Christians in the country face mounting threats.
"Thousands of Christian families are being told to leave the country or convert to Islam or pay the jizyah (a tax traditionally imposed on non-Muslim men in Islamic states)," said the parliamentarian, Romeo Hakkari, an ethnic Assyrian of the Chaldean Church - a Roman Catholic oriental rite denomination.
According to Hakkari, who heads the House of the Two Rivers Democratic Party, which promotes the rights of Assyrian-Chaldeans, many Christians living in Mosul and Baghdad have fled those cities and sought refuge either in remote parts of Iraqi Kurdistan or abroad after receiving threats from Islamists.
He cited the example of pamphlets, purportedly distributed by the al-Qaeda-linked "Islamic State of Iraq" group that threatened to kill Christians if they did not abandon the city.
The Muslim extremists have also tried to revive the jizyah practice, which forced non-Muslism people "of the Book" (Christians and Jews) to buy protection from the authorities by paying the tax.
"Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime Christians in Iraq, and in particular Baghdad have faced persecution for the first time in the history of this country," Hakkari told AKI.
Iraq's Christian community was estimated to number nearly half a million or about 5 percent of the country's population on the eve of the 2003 US-led war that toppled Saddam.
Thousands of Iraqi Christians who comprise a variety of churches - Assyrian Orthodox and Assyrian Catholic; Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholic; Armenian Orthodox and Armenian Catholic; Greek Orthodox, Latin Catholic, and Protestant denominations - have since fled the strife-torn country