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Iraqi Christians Seek Safe Haven in Jordan

AMMAN (AFP) -- A spate of attacks targeting Christians in Iraq has forced many to flee to neighbouring Jordan which many see as a stepping stone to a new life as far away as possible from the violence-ridden country.

On Sundays families gather at the Syriac Orthodox church in Jordan's capital Amman to pray, socialise and mull over the best ways of securing a visa to enable them emigrate to the United States, Canada, Australia or Europe.

There are always new faces in the crowd, like Suzanne Jilliani, her husband Hani Daniel and their year-old baby who fled after the October 31 attack on Baghdad's Syriac Catholic cathedral that left 46 worshippers dead.

The couple, who now live in a furnished flat provided by the Syriac church in Jordan, dream of joining Jilliani's family in the United States.

"Do you think they will give us visas to go to the United States?" Jilliani asked a fellow Iraqi after a recent Sunday mass.

"Never," said Moayed, who declined to give his first name. "Try Canada. This is what I did."

Moayed said his request to travel to the United States was rejected because he had served in the army of executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Like some Christians, Moayed said he fled Iraq after being threatened by the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Moayed managed a supermarket in Iraq but one day it blew up. He said it happened after the Mahdi Army had ordered him to pack up and leave the country because "there is no room here for Christians."

George Hazou, who heads a Syriac charity organisation in Jordan and is an official with the Middle East Council of Churches, estimates that 120,000 Iraqi Christians have fled to Jordan since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

"There are 40,000 to 50,000 Iraqis left in Jordan," he told AFP, adding that the rest have left to start new lives in North America, Australia and Europe.

Uday Hikmat worries about the future.

Three days after the church massacre he and his parents packed and left Iraq. "We did not want to wait our turn to die," said the 33-year-old.

Now he hopes that his birth certificate will serve as a central element in the documentation he needs to submit to secure an emigration visa.

Fellow worshipper Mohannad Najem said Hikmat was "lucky" to have his birth certificate.

"Churches in Iraq no longer issue birth certificates in order to contain the exile of Christians," said Najem, a 33-year-old car mechanic who fled Iraq in October with his wife and four small children.

"The Mahdi Army told me I had to pay them 1,000 dollars each month or they would kill my children one by one.

"Two days after that threat we were gone," he said.

They got out 10 days before the massacre at the Baghdad Syriac cathedral where they worshipped on Sundays.

"We would probably be dead now," said Najem. His cousin Nadia and nephew Fadi were among the victims.

Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the church massacre and warned that it would step up attacks on Christians.

Earlier this month a senior Iraqi clergyman said Iraq's Christians should leave the country or face being killed at the hands of Al-Qaeda.

"If they stay they will be finished, one by one," the London-based Archbishop Athanasios Dawood told the BBC.

But Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on November 9 that Christians should not be encouraged to leave their homeland.

An estimated 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq before the 2003 US-led invasion, but their number has since shrunk to around 500,000 in the face of repeated attacks against their community and churches.

Altogether an estimated two million refugees from Iraq, mostly Muslim, have fled to Jordan and Syria since the invasion.


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