Thousands protest in Brussels following string of violent attacks against Christians in Iraq

16.jpgBy Gabriele Steinhauser
BRUSSELS — Several thousand people from across Europe gathered in Brussels Saturday to protest a recent escalation of violence against Christians in Iraq.

“We want our voice to be heard by the European community,” said Suleyman Gultekin of the European Syriac Union, which organized the march. “We are attacked systematically” in Iraq.

Syriac Christians have lived in the Middle East for centuries and now make up a small minority in countries like Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Turkey.

The demonstration follows a string of violent attacks against the Christian community in Iraq, which has already dwindled from 1.5 million to about 400,000 over the past decade.

Gunmen stormed a Sunday Mass service in Baghdad on Oct. 31, killing 68 people — including two priests — and injuring many others. On Wednesday, five people were killed and 20 wounded in more than a dozen bombings and mortar attacks targeting Christian families in the Iraqi capital.

“Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Iraqi government was not able to protect us,” Gultekin told The Associated Press. “So, our conclusion is that we need an autonomy in the north of Iraq to protect our people and to be in a safe and secure place.”

Police estimated that about 4,000 people marched in the demonstration in pouring rain, although organizers said there were many more.

They carried pictures of the two priests killed in the attack on the church and chanted slogans condemning violence against Christians in French, English and Arabic.

Kamil Aho, a 30-year old Syrian, travelled to Brussels by bus from Paderborn, in northwestern Germany. “We are shouting so that everyone in the world can hear” what has been happening, he said.

The march, led by a group of Syriac priests, culminated in a rally in front of the headquarters of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive.

“Right now everybody is afraid,” said Father Noel Al Castoma, a Syriac priest who fled Iraq in 2004 and now lives in the Netherlands.

In Austria’s capital, hundreds of people demonstrated against the killings. Organizers say 3,000 people participated in the protest in central Vienna, while police put the number at around 800.