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First Baghdad Church Wounded Due in France Monday

(AFP) -- A first batch of 36 Iraqis wounded in a deadly Al-Qaeda hostage crisis in a Baghdad church were due to arrive in France on Monday, Immigration Minister Eric Besson said.

France said it would help the most seriously wounded, all but two of whom are Christians, soon after last Sunday's shoot-out, when Iraqi and US security forces stormed a Syriac Catholic cathedral during mass.

Their arrival, said Besson, fits into France's "tradition of asylum" said Besson told reporters Sunday.

"France is the leading land for asylum in Europe and the world's second behind the United States," he added.

"We are the European country that receives the most refugees who have been persecuted because of their political opinions, their religion or the colour of their skin."

France announced it was ready to take in 150 Iraqis, with the priority going to those wounded in the attack and their families, shortly after the bloodbath, in which 46 hostages including two priests were killed.

A second group of 93 is expected to arrive "in the coming weeks," Besson said, with the list still being drafted.

Al-Qaeda has declared Christians everywhere "legitimate targets" in the wake of the bloodshed at the Baghdad church.

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