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Iraqi Christians Welcome in North, Kurdish Leader Says
By Jomana Karadsheh

Baghdad, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqi Christians under siege by Islamic militants are welcome in the country's north, a Kurdish leader said Thursday, after a string of attacks that have killed dozens of the faith.

"I want to let them know that the Kurdistan Region is open to them. If they want to come, we will protect them and provide them with all services," said Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan regional government. "We are extremely sorry for the crimes they have been subjected to and we condemn these criminal acts, they are innocent people and a precious part of this nation."

In the past, the regional government has opened its doors to other persecuted minorities.

Many Christian families that CNN spoke to Wednesday said they feared for their own safety and wanted to leave Iraq, but didn't have the means to do so. Some Iraqi church leaders and politicians such as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have been discouraging Iraqi Christians, one of the oldest Christian civilizations in the world, from leaving.

CNN reporters in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish north have noticed an influx of Christians in the country's north in recent days, but there has been a general migration since 2003.

Barzani's comments came after the United States, the U.N. Security Council and an American Catholic archbishop expressed concerns Wednesday about the continuing attacks on Christian and other religious groups in Iraq.

At least three people were killed and 25 wounded Wednesday morning, an Iraqi interior ministry official said.

On Tuesday evening, three people were wounded in western Baghdad when bombs exploded outside Christian homes there, the ministry said.

"The United States strongly condemns the recent terrorist attacks in Iraq, which were perpetrated by al Qaeda in Iraq against Christians in Baghdad in their homes and in their churches," said Mike Hammer, spokesman for the White House's National Security Council. "We also strongly condemn additional attacks against innocent civilians throughout Iraq, to include pilgrims in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala."

The U.N. Security Council also decried attacks on places of worship in Iraq.

The archbishop of Chicago, Illinois, urged U.S. President Barack Obama to take steps to protect Christians in Iraq.

"Having invaded Iraq, our nation has a moral obligation not to abandon those Iraqis who cannot defend themselves," wrote Cardinal Francis George of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

A group called the Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the gruesome October 31 siege of the Sayidat al-Nejat cathedral that left 70 people dead and 75 wounded. The umbrella group includes a number of Sunni extremist organizations and has ties to al Qaeda in Iraq.

Thirty-five Christian survivors of the attack arrived in France this week, where they will be able to seek asylum.

The gunmen who led the attack demanded that the Iraqi government release a number of detainees and prisoners in Iraqi prisons, saying the Christian hostages would be freed in return, according to the police officials.

Iraq's defense minister later said on state television that the kidnappers had demanded the release of a number of prisoners in both Iraq and Egypt.


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