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Iraqi Christians suffer a plague of persecution Add to ...

Christians in Baghdad huddle in churches these days, praying for deliverance from an ongoing campaign of persecution that threatens the viability of the 2,000-year-old religious community.

A slew of attacks on homes and shops of Christians in the city killed six people and injured 33 injured since Tuesday evening, according to an Iraqi defence official.

These latest attacks, small-scale by Iraqi standards, came just 10 days after a devastating Oct. 31 hostage-taking in which 44 Christian worshippers, two priests and seven security personnel were killed when Iraqi forces stormed Baghdad's Syrian Catholic Cathedral that had been seized by several Islamist gunmen.

The Islamic State of Iraq, an organization affiliated with al-Qaeda, announced it carried out the cathedral attack to force the release of Islamic converts allegedly being detained by the Coptic Church in Egypt. The group later declared Christians everywhere to be "legitimate targets."

As Christians converged on their churches Wednesday to seek counsel from their religious leaders, the capital's Syrian Catholic archbishop made an emotional appeal for Western countries to come to their rescue.

"It would be criminal on the part of the international community not to take care of the security of the Christians," said Athanase Matti Shaba Matoka as he tried to console members of the Baghdad cathedral's congregation.

"Everybody is scared," he told reporters. "People are asking who is going to protect them, how are they going to stay on in Iraq. We are trying to encourage them to stay patient."

Monsignor Pius Kasha said, "We don't know what is the aim of these criminals, but what is certain is that this will push even more Christians to emigrate."

It is estimated that about 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion overthrew the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. Since then, some 300,000 are said to have fled the country and its sectarian conflicts.

In the northern city of Mosul, which has borne the brunt of most attacks during the seven years, church officials say that what was a thriving community of 7,000 Christian families in 2003, now numbers fewer than 1,500 families.

Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone described the latest attacks as "very painful."

"It is a terrible suffering for all the Christian communities in the world," he said.

At a recent convening at the Vatican of Middle East bishops to discuss the plight of Christians in the region, the delegation praised Christians in places such as Iraq who had stayed "in times of adversity, suffering and anguish" and encouraged those who felt compelled to leave their country to one day return to their homeland.

Most of those Iraqi Christians who have endured the past seven years are unlikely to leave now. However, the bigger question is will those who sought refuge in neighbouring Jordan or Turkey ever come back?

Those who remain do so not only because is it their birthplace, but because they can't turn their back on two millennia of Christian presence.

Though there are many denominations, most Iraqi Christians trace their lineage to St. Thomas, the apostle, who preached across the region and on to India.

The majority are Chaldeans, Eastern-rite Catholics who are autonomous from Rome but recognize the Pope's authority.

Though considered "people of the book" according to the Koran, and thereby said to be protected, Christians in Iraq often have endured degrees of abuse from zealous Muslims, sometimes because it is Christians that are purveyors of alcoholic beverages, forbidden by Islam.

These booze shops tend to group together for safety, and are usually kept under the watchful eye of security forces.

These latest attacks, however, go much deeper.

There is "a deliberate will to destroy the Christian community," said France's UN ambassador Gerard Araud, Wednesday in New York.

Al-Qaeda's bomb and gun assaults, he said, are "an attack on the diversity of Iraqi society," he said.

Wednesday's attacks came just a day after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited the scarred cathedral and urged Christians not to leave the country. Iraqi security forces would protect them, he promised.

With a report from Agence France-Presse

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