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Iraq Pours in Police to Protect Christians

MOSUL, Iraq (AFP) -- Iraq deployed around 1,000 police in Christian areas of Mosul on Sunday as thousands of members of the minority group fled the worst violence against them in five years.

"Two (national police) brigades were sent to Christian areas in Mosul and churches were surrounded and put under tight security," interior ministry spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf told AFP.

He said the reinforcements had been deployed from midnight in the restive northern city, considered by US and Iraqi commanders as the last urban stronghold of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Khalaf added that two investigation teams, one security and the other criminal, had also been deployed to probe a spate of attacks on Christians in Mosul since September 28, in which at least 11 people have been killed.

An AFP correspondent said police had set up checkpoints at churches in the city's four heavily Christian areas and were patrolling the streets on foot.

Nearly 1,000 Christian families have fled their homes in the city since Friday, taking shelter on the northern and eastern fringes of Nineveh province, according to provincial governor Duraid Kashmula.

He said the violence was the worst against Christians in five years.

"(It) is the fiercest campaign against Christians since 2003," Kashmula told AFP on Saturday. "Among those killed over the past 11 days were a doctor, an engineer and a handicapped person."

At least three homes of Christians were blown up by unidentified attackers on Saturday, security officials said.

Mosul military command spokesman Khalid Abdul-Satar said he did not know who was behind the violence but pledged to protect the Christian community.

"We told the Christians through their churches and priests that we are ready to provide security to any house or individual that needs our protection. We have enough forces to do that," Satar said.

At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday condemned the violence against Christians in both Iraq and India.

"I invite you to pray for peace and reconciliation as situations cause concern and great suffering.... I think of violence against Christians in Iraq and India," he said.

Yunadem Kanna, one of only two Christians in the national parliament, said he had held urgent talks with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on the violence.

"I just met with Maliki and he promised to deliver," he said, adding that the army and not just police had to move into the area in force if the law was to be upheld.

The flight of Christians from Mosul came as Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako last week called on the US military as well as Prime Minister Maliki's government to protect Christians and other minorities in the face of a rash of deadly attacks.

In an interview with AFP, Sako called on US forces to do more to protect Christians and other minorities.

"We are the target of a campaign of liquidation, a campaign of violence. The objective is political," Sako said.

Since the US-led invasion of 2003 more than 200 Christians had been killed and a string of churches attacked, with the violence intensifying in recent weeks, particularly in the north, he added.

There were around 800,000 Christians in Iraq at the time of the US-led invasion, a number that has since shrunk by around a third as the faithful have fled the country, the archbishop said.

In March, the body of the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, Paul Faraj Rahho, 65, was found in a shallow grave in the city two weeks after he was kidnapped as he returned home from celebrating mass.

Iraq's Christian community includes various denominations, including Syrian Orthodox and Catholic, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic congregations.


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