iraq, france: Iraqi Christians mark Christmas in Paris

Iraqi Catholics, including some of those wounded in the October 32 attack, attending the special mass in Paris on December 26
Iraqi Christians who survived the deadly storming of a Baghdad church attended a special Christmas mass last Sunday in France, where they were evacuated following the attack.

“This mass is held especially for the survivors of the attack of October 31”, said Elish Yako, leader of a French association supporting Iraq’s Christians, at the mass in the Chaldaean Church of Paris.
An estimated 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq before the US-led invasion of 2003 but that number has since shrunk to around 500,000 in the face of repeated attacks against their community and churches.
This Christmas, “in Baghdad all the churches cancelled their midnight masses because of security concerns”, Yako indicated.
“Every time I go into a church I have tears in my eyes. I have forgotten the words to the prayers, even ‘Our Father’”, said Mariam, 65, one of the survivors of the attack who attended the Paris service.
She came to France on November 8 with her wounded son, one of 36 wounded Iraqi Christians brought to France in November for treatment.
Forty-four worshippers, two priests and seven security personnel died when the Syriac Catholic cathedral was seized by Al-Qaeda gunmen and then stormed by Iraqi and American security forces. Around 60 people were wounded.
“My heart is there, my thoughts are there with the families who stayed, the ones who lost family members”, said Mariam.
Yako said at least five of the wounded had returned from France to Iraq and six are still in hospital, while others have applied for asylum. France has said it also plans a second evacuation flight for a further 93 Christians.
Earlier last month the rights group Amnesty International called on Iraq’s government to step up protection of Christians.
Amnesty “called on the Iraqi government to do more to protect the country’s Christian minority” from an expected spike in violent attacks, the rights group said in a statement.
“Attacks on Christians and their churches by armed groups have intensified in past weeks and have clearly included war crimes” Malcolm Smart, Amnesty’s director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in the statement.
“We fear that militants are likely to attempt serious attacks against Christians during the Christmas period for maximum publicity and to embarrass the government”, Smart said on December 20..
The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an Al-Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility for the attack on October 31 and warned that Christians everywhere were henceforth “legitimate targets”.
The secretary-general of Iraq’s Council of Ministers, Ali Mohsen Ismail al-Allaq, condemned attacks on Iraqi Christians and said the government would do more to confront attacks.
“The country is facing attempts to empty Iraqi society” of Christians, Allaq said, terming those behind the attempts “external enemies” of Iraq.
Iraq “is facing exceptional circumstances, and the attacks issue is among these circumstances”, he said, promising that the government would “provide the required support… to face the difficulties, and solve all the problems of the security situation”.
For his part, Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Mohammed al-Askari said that Iraqi Army special forces killed three Libyans who were allegedly planning suicide attacks ahead of Christmas in the northern city of Mosul.
The soldiers raided a house in southern Mosul and came under attack with hand grenades, sparking a clash in which the three “terrorists” were killed, he said.
Security forces found three explosive vests, six hand grenades, a pistol and documents indicating the men had entered Iraq at the weekend, he said, adding that the Libyans were planning to carry out suicide attacks ahead of Christmas.

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