Iraq pledges $900K to help displaced Christians

artiraqchristiansap1.jpgBAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) — Iraq’s president on Sunday pledged nearly $900,000 to help Christian families who have fled the northern Iraqi city of Mosul because of killings and threats.

Protesters in Baghdad on Friday show support for Christians who have faced attacks and threats in Mosul.

The money — equivalent to 1 billion Iraqi dinars — will help safeguard “the rights and freedoms of Christians” in Iraq, according to a statement from President Jalal Talabani’s office.

A committee of Christian leaders and representatives from Talabani’s office will supervise the distribution of the money, the statement said.

More than half of Mosul’s Christian population — an estimated 13,000 people, or 2,300 families — fled the city last month, though the departures tapered toward the month’s end, Nineveh province’s Deputy Gov. Khasro Goran told CNN on Tuesday.

Authorities believe the attacks, which left at least 14 Iraqi Christians dead, may have been prompted by Christian demonstrations in early October.

Hundreds of Christians had taken to the streets in Mosul and surrounding villages and towns, demanding adequate representation on provincial councils, whose members will be chosen in local elections in January.

The violence that followed those demonstrations prompted the government to dispatch more security forces to patrol the city. Violence has decreased as a result, Iraqi officials said.

Last month, U.S. Department of Defense spokesman Geoff Morrell said the anti-Christian attacks and threats are partly “due to elements of al Qaeda that still enjoy some ability to operate up there.”

Mosul is one of the last Iraqi cities where al Qaeda in Iraq has a significant presence and routinely carries out attacks.

“This is an attempt, it appears, to try to inflame tensions and fault lines that exist between religious and sectarian groups,” Morrell said.

The United Nations refugee agency is helping many of the displaced families, most of whom have fled to nearby villages in Nineveh province. About 400 others have crossed into Syria, but many have said they no longer feel safe there, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Syria already hosts more than 1 million Iraqi refugees.

UNHCR said many of the Iraqi Christians interviewed by the agency provided stories of intimidation and death threats in Mosul.

“One woman said she and her mother left Mosul early last week, two days after someone called one of her colleagues at work and said that all Christians should leave the city immediately or be killed,” according to a UNHCR statement.

“She said she was unnerved, but decided to leave only after hearing reports that 11 people had been killed at a checkpoint by militiamen dressed as police officers,” according to the statement. “She and her mother escaped with a couple of bags and all the money that they had in the house — they did not dare go to the bank to remove their savings.”

A nurse told UNHCR that the threats against Christians in Mosul began several months ago “with phone calls, letters and messages left on doors.”

“She said she stayed in Mosul until October 10, when she received a new threat. She immediately left with her mother,” the agency said