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Huge increase in number of Christian Iraqis fleeing to Syria

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Thursday October 12, 2006

Damascus- The number of Christian Iraqi families who have fled Iraq to Syria since the toppling of the Iraqi regime in 2003 has increased greatly during the past two years amid mounting threats to their security, reports said Thursday. Emanuel Khoshba, head of the office of the Assyrian and Democratic Movement in Syria since 2001, said that the number of Iraqi Christians arriving in Syria in 2004 was 20,000.

By 2006, it had 35,000 and it was likely to further increase, he said.

Violence in Iraq has forced a quarter of Iraq's 1.2 million Christians to flee to neighbouring countries.

Bassam Najjari, 29, who has been living with his parents and brothers at Jaramana camp near Damascus, came to Syria last month.

His life was threatened 40 days previously by unidentified militants who came to his shop and asked him who he was.

"When I tried to run away, they shot me trice and I spent 17 days in the hospital."

The incident was reported to the police, but nothing was done, he said. This prompted him to leave for Syria.

"I would like to start my own business in Syria, because there is no hope of going back home as the security situation is very bad and there are no indications that it will get better soon," his brother Wissam said.

His three children are now going to a nearby school. "I was surprised to see one Syrian student to three Iraqis in this school," he said.

Khoshba said the extremists were intimidating Christians and forcing them to leave Iraq,

The security situation was bad in Iraq and there was "unannounced civil war," he said.

His office provides services to Iraqis ranging from delivering assistance from international organizations and Syrian churches to helping them access free surgery at Syrian hospitals.

Saddallah Mardini, 43, an Assyrian, said he had come to Syria to study the situation before bringing his family to live in the country. He had lost all his property in Baghdad.

"We want to live safely ... We are life-lovers and want noting but security and stability," he said.

Rana Raed, 25, Wissam's wife, said life in Iraq was "unbearable" with no water, no electricity and no security.

However, she said her children "now go to school, which they would have been deprived of had they stayed in Iraq."

Arkan Hana Hakim, a 40-year-old priest from Mosul, who was appointed two months ago to supervise the Iraqi Assyrian sect in Damascus, said more than 2,000 Iraqi Christian families were now in Jarammana alone.

Many of the Christians had received warnings to leave Iraq or face death.

He said that the threats had increased following the Pope's recent controversial remarks deemed insulting to the Islamic faith.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency