Vatican demands more protection for Iraq Christians

VATICAN CITY Tue Oct 21, 2008 10:50am EDT

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican on Tuesday called on the Iraqi government and human rights groups to do more to protect Christians in Mosul, where half of the minority community has fled after attacks and threats.

Pope Benedict's spokesman, the Reverend Federico Lombardi, told Reuters that the Vatican was asking itself if there was "insufficient willingness" on the part of Iraqi authorities to protect Christians.

"We are extremely worried about what we are hearing from Iraq," Lombardi said

Last Friday in Geneva, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said about half of the Christians in Iraq's northern town of Mosul, nearly 10,000 people, had fled in the period of about a week.

"The situation in Mosul is dramatic. The victims are Christians and many thousands of people are fleeing precisely because they are subjected not only to the fear of periodic attacks but a systematic campaign of threats," Lombardi said.

"This is extremely worrying and we ask ourselves if these people are sufficiently protected by the authorities or if the authorities are not able to protect them or if there is insufficient willingness to protect them," he said.

Last week, Iraq's government pledged to send senior officials to the north to tackle the violence. In Geneva, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said it was concerned about mass displacement in the Mosul area.

A copy of a flyer left in a Christian home in Mosul warned the family to "leave your house and the area within 24 hours otherwise you will be justly punished and be killed as our Islamic religion dictates be done to those like you who venerate the cross."

The flyer, made available to Reuters by diplomatic sources, includes verses of the Koran, a specific street address in Mosul and was signed by a group calling itself the "Consultative Council of Combatants in Iraq."

"It's clear that there is a problem of Islamic fundamentalism and this can become more aggressive in the current situation in Iraq," Lombardi said.

Lombardi said the world needed to know what was happening in Mosul and thanked the UNHCR for bringing attention to the problem. But he added:

"Certainly the government has its responsibility but we appeal to all those who can influence the situation -- human rights organizations and the international community -- so that everyone around the world is made aware that what is happening in Iraq is a very grave violation of fundamental human rights."

Iraq holds special significance to Christians, Jews and Muslims because it the birthplace of Abraham, a revered figure in all three monotheistic religions.

"These are ancient Christian communities with a great tradition and great culture. All Iraq risks being dramatically weakened (as a nation) with the loss of one of its historic components," Lombardi said.

Last March Paulos Faraj Rahho, a Chaldean Catholic archbishop, was kidnapped and later found dead near Mosul.

(Editing by Jon Boyle)