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Haunted by violence, Iraqi Christians flee to Turkey

ICC Note:

The number of Christian refugees fleeing to Turkey has significantly increased since the October 31 when more than 40 worshippers were killed in a Baghdad church.

By Nicolas Cheviron

1/16/2011 Iraq, Turkey (AFP) – Terrorised by mounting extremist attacks, more and more Iraqi Christians are fleeing in panic to neighbouring Muslim-majority Turkey, among them lone minors sent away by desperate parents.

In Istanbul, a tiny Chaldean Catholic community has embraced the refugees, serving as their first point of shelter before the United Nations or local civic groups extend a helping hand.

The number of arrivals, available statistics show, has sharply increased since October 31 when gunmen stormed a Baghdad church, killing 44 worshippers, two priests and seven security guards, in an attack claimed by Al-Qaeda’s local affiliate.

“We saw many newcomers after the attack. We saw they had made no preparation and had no savings,” said Gizem Demirci, an activist at the Association for Solidarity with Asylum-Seekers and Migrants.

“Moreover, we began to receive minors… whose families are still in Iraq but had just enough money to send away a son or a daughter,” she added without offering any specific figures.

The violence prompted an emergency summit by Iraq’s top Muslim clergy in Copenhagen this week that issued a fatwa Friday that “condemns all atrocities against the Christians,” said Andrew White, a participant and British vicar at St. George’s Church in Baghdad.

In Istanbul, among the newest refugees is 21-year-old Sandra, whose family fled Baghdad in mid-November, alarmed by the church carnage and ensuing threats by Islamist extremists. Christians represent less than two percent of the population in Muslim-majority Iraq.

“Some of our neighbours were killed in that attack,” Sandra told AFP at the Chaldean Catholic Church in Istanbul. “At any time, it would have been our turn, the turn of our church.”

Her father, a cook, made the decision to flee when the family felt the menace had reached their doorstep.

“We were at home with my mother and sister. At about 10:30 pm, some men stormed in and made us lie down. They told us: ‘Either you become Muslims or you go. Otherwise we kill you’,” Sandra recounted.

In her dreams, Australia is the final destination in a journey to a new life. Going back home is not even an option.

“Going back to what? Getting killed?” she grumbled.

According to church records, some 150 Christian families, or more than 600 people, arrived in Turkey in December, almost the same as during the whole of 2009.

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