Iraqi Christians find refuge in France

t1largiraqichristiansgi1.jpgBy Jim Bittermann, CNN
A woman prays over pictures of the October 31 church victims at the Sayidat al-Nejat church in Baghdad on December 19.STORY HIGHLIGHTS
Many Iraqi Christians have fled to France, reporting threats and persecution
Massacre at a Baghdad church in October killed 56 people, injured more than 70
Iraqi Christians once numbered 1.2 million; now down to 400,000, bishop says
Worshippers in France say they didn’t want to leave Iraq but danger was too great
Creteil, France (CNN) — At Sunday mass in the suburbs outside Paris, a score of Iraqi Catholics are praying for themselves and their families.

They are part of a group of nearly 60 brought here in early November after a bloody massacre at their church in Baghdad. In that attack, believed to have been carried out by al Quaeda, 56 people died, including two auxiliary priests, and more than 70 were injured — among them the parish priest of Our Lady of Salvation, Father Raphael Kuteimi.

Kuteimi was struck by grenade fragments during the attack, which went on for four hours. He was brought to France for medical treatment. The church did have some police protection, he says, but there are just too many threats against the Christian community.

Pierre Whalon, an Anglican bishop who helps bring the religiously persecuted to France, points out that no one takes note of threats to the Christian community until there is a major attack.

“There has been a Christian assassinated every single day since 2003. At least one,” Whalon says. “You know, the news reports just get tired of it, because what’s new? Another Christian or two or 10 murdered today in Mosul or Baghdad or elsewhere.”

Whalon says the Christian community of Iraq, which numbered about 1.2 million before the war began, now is down to about 400,000, with many moving out under the threat of death. After the attack in October, the number of people on waiting lists seeking refuge in France swelled to more than 4,000.

No one wants to see such an ancient community disappear, says the bishop, least of all the refugees themselves — but they have little choice.

That’s certainly the feeling of “Elias,” who wants to keep his real name secret because he still has family he is trying to bring out of Iraq. The former government bureaucrat was wounded in the church attack and says he heard the gunmen say they want to drive Christian infidels out of the country. The last thing he wanted to do, he says, is to leave his homeland.

“I am now in France, not my country,” says Elias. “I have no job here. I had a very good job in Baghdad, a very good salary, my wife too, assistant professor. And now we will come here — for what? But if we have no protection to keep ourselves away from them, we must leave, and that’s why you see us here.”

“I have memories. I have lots of feelings about Iraq, especially Baghdad,” he continues, choking back tears. “So when I remember some of them I start to cry sometimes. I cry — but what can we do? It’s our destiny.”

It’s a destiny now being played out thousands of miles from his home,