Killings force 13,000 Christians to flee Mosul•

UN agency sends aid to beleaguered community
• Sunni Arabs and Kurds blamed for violenceAidan Jones

The full scale of the persecution of Christians in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul became apparent last night when the UN’s refugee agency said about 13,000 had been hounded from their homes this month – more than half of the city’s Christian community.

The UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) said it was sending aid to thousands of Christian refugees fleeing Mosul after a three-week campaign of killing and intimidation. About a dozen Christians have reportedly been killed in the recent violence, prompting many members of the community to seek sanctuary in churches and homes in outlying villages, or in Syria. “Many left with little money and need help,” said Ron Redmond, UNHCR spokesman, in a briefing from Geneva. Christian neighbourhoods had been bombarded with threatening phone calls, letters and messages pinned to doors for months, but the killing began a few weeks ago, he said.

Recounting the story of a woman named Mariam, Redmond said she left her home when she heard of a Christian who was murdered.

“We were the hard core that never wanted to leave Iraq, even with the tense environment,” the woman, who fled to Syria, was quoted by UNHCR as saying.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, but suspicion has fallen on Sunni extremists intent on turning the historic city into a stronghold.

Local Sunni officials deny the allegation, pointing the finger at Kurdish militias who, it is said, want to empty the city of Christians before upcoming local elections. The Kurdish regional government also denies the claims.

Mosul, Iraq’s third biggest city after Baghdad and Basra, has remained mired in violence despite the US military surge. Al-Qaida insurgents regrouped in the city after being flushed out of neighbouring Anbar province, taking advantage of its proximity to Syria.

After a period of relative calm roadside bombs and assassinations gradually returned to Mosul, giving it the reputation as the Iraq’s most dangerous city.

The province of Nineveh, which has Mosul at its heart, has been home to Assyrian and Chaldean Catholics for 2,000 years. Before the fall of Saddam Hussein Iraq’s Christian population numbered about 1.2 million.

But the upsurge of violence has prompted a mass exodus, with 20% of the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria thought to be Christians.

The return of sustained religious violence will also raise fears over Iraq’s fragile security and lend weight to calls for the Iraqi government to give US troops a legal mandate to maintain security for a further three years.

Meanwhile a Shia cleric, Jalaluddin al-Saghir, yesterday endorsed a draft US-Iraqi security pact. “The country is passing through a most critical stage,” Saghir said. “The politicians should think about Iraq’s interests. They should not seek to break the unity of Iraqi society. This is not a game.” The proposed agreement has been opposed by a number of critics, including the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who say it infringes Iraq’s sovereignty.