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(ANS) – Tens of thousands of Christians have fled Iraq where fierce battles raged Tuesday August 17, between American forces and the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a government official confirmed. Displacement and Migration Minister, Pascale Isho Warda, the only Assyrian Christian in the country’s interim government, said 40,000 Christians had already left Iraq since five church bombings blamed on Islamic militants killed up to 15 people two weeks ago, the French News Agency (AFP) reported. The number of fleeing Christians was much higher than previously estimated, and more believers were expected to follow amid signs of growing Muslim violence in areas such as the troubled town of Najaf, although the Vatican said late Tuesday, August 17, it was prepared to mediate a halt to the fighting. But Vatican spokesman Ciro Benedettini told reporters the Holy See was only willing to mediate if requested to do so by both sides in the conflict in what is seen as ‘the Shiite holy city’ in Iraq. “The Holy See, obviously, is always disposed to help the parties to talk to each other and have a dialogue, on condition there exists a real will to commit to a peaceful solution to the crisis,” he said. Catholic media reported that the mediation was expected to be directly handled by the Cardinal Secretary of State, Angelo Sodano, who is said to be closely following developments in the conflict. Sodano reportedly told Italian state radio this week that all sides should “respect the holy character of the city. Therefore, the appeal that I make in the name of the pope is that there is a return in any case to honest talks.”