GENEVA Thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled their homes to semi-autonomous Kurdish areas and neighboring countries since a Catholic church in Baghdad was attacked six weeks ago, the U.N. refugee agency said on Friday.
Some 1,000 Christian families, roughly 6,000 people, have arrived in the northern Kurdish areas from Baghdad, Mosul and Nineveh, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said. Several thousand have crossed into Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
Many spoke of receiving threats or leaving out of fear. Fifty-two hostages and police were killed when Iraqi forces tried to free more than 100 Catholics taken hostage during Sunday mass on October 31.
"Since the awful Baghdad church attack and subsequent targeted attacks, the Christian communities in Baghdad and Mosul have started a slow but steady exodus," UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told a news briefing.
She said that thousands of people had fled to neighboring countries but that only several hundred had so far registered as refugees. Churches and aid groups have told the UNHCR to expect more to flee in coming weeks, she said.
Iraq's Christians once numbered 1.5 million out of a total Iraqi population of about 30 million and there are now estimated to be about 850,000, or about 3 percent of the population.
TARGET FOR MILITANTS
They have frequently been targeted by militants, with churches bombed and priests assassinated.
A dozen suspected al Qaeda members have been arrested in connection with the bloodiest attack on Iraq's Christian minority since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), al Qaeda's local affiliate, has claimed responsibility for targeting the church.
One Iraqi man, now registered as a refugee in Jordan, left the church minutes before the attack in which his brother-in-law was killed, according to Fleming.
The survivor had been deported days earlier from Sweden which rejected his asylum claim, she said.
On Wednesday, Sweden returned some 20 Iraqis to Baghdad, including five Christians, in the latest unannounced deportations from Europe, according to the UNHCR.
Several of the returnees said that their asylum claims were rejected on the basis of improved security conditions in Iraq.
"UNHCR strongly reiterates its call on countries to refrain from deporting Iraqis who originate from the most perilous parts of the country. That includes Baghdad," Fleming said.
Even if Iraqi asylum seekers' claims have been rejected, Western governments should not deport them to five central provinces, including Baghdad, seen as too dangerous, according to the agency's guidelines to governments.
(Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Jonny Hogg)