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Despite Threats, Iraqi Christians Defiant Over New Church

Kirkuk, Iraq (DPA) -- Hundreds of Iraqi Christians have defied threats against their community by celebrating their new church in Kirkuk, the first to be built in the northern city in eight years.

Last week, Saint Paul's church became the first to be opened in the multi-ethnic city since the US-led invasion, despite threats by militant groups, affiliated with al-Qaeda, targeting the country's minority.

'This church, and our presence here to celebrate its birth, is the strongest message that we are staying in our land,' said Fawziya Hanna, 48.

'We do not want to be strangers in our own world, and the forces of extremism are the ones which must change their approach and stop targeting us,' she added.

The number of Christians in Iraq has declined sharply in response to attacks and threats by al-Qaeda. Most have left the country, or were displaced to other cities due to continuous attacks on their communities.

It is estimated that less than half a million Christians now live in Iraq, or around half of their pre-2003 population.

Saint Paul's church stands in a poor Christian neighbourhood around 10 kilometres north of Kirkuk, where many Christian families live after escaping increasing violence directed at them, mostly in the cities of Baghdad and Mosul.

The region's archbishop Louis Sako, of the Chaldean Christian denomination, claimed this was the first new church to be built in Iraq since 2003, although older churches have been rebuilt after being destroyed in attacks.

The church was built with donations, including around 10,000 dollars from President Jalal Talabani, on land given by the government, Sako added.

'Christians are the backbone of Iraq, their presence is a main element for the country's stability,' Turkman leader Mounir al-Qafeli said.

Iraqi Christians have been targeted in a string of attacks since October, when some 60 people died in a Baghdad church hostage-taking by a group affiliated with al-Qaeda. Most of the victims were Christian worshippers, as well as some security personnel.

At the time, gunmen stormed the Our Lady of Salvation church wearing suicide vests packed with explosives. They terrorized those inside, shooting men, women and children including two priests, before detonating the explosives.

Shortly after the attack, the group issued a threat to Christians in Iraq and across the Middle East, calling them a 'legitimate target.'

Christian families in Baghdad have been subjected to a systematic threats by post or by text message, human rights group Amnesty International said last year.

The UN High Commission for Refugees said about 1,000 families left Baghdad and Mosul province for the northern Kurdish region, in the two months following the attack.

In 2004, a series of blasts targeted five churches and left 11 people dead.

In 2008, bombings went off outside three churches in Mosul, two churches in Kirkuk and four in the capital Baghdad. Two years later, several Christians were killed in a two-week spate of attacks in Mosul.

Overall violence in Iraq had steadily dropped since bloodshed peaked in 2006. However, the country's Christian minority continue to face personal threats and getting kidnapped.

'Christians are part of our Iraqi diversity,' said Ismail al-Hadidi, a Sunni Sheikh in Kirkuk. 'Now we are trying to protect this social texture, because without them Iraq will not remain the same.'


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