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Iraqi religious heads call for Christians' protection

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s Muslim and Christian religious leaders on Thursday called for a united front in protecting Christians following a spate of attacks against them.

Thousands of Christians have fled the capital Baghdad after an assault on a Syrian Catholic cathedral in October in which 52 people were killed, and a series of bomb attacks on the homes of Christians in December which killed two people and wounded 16.

At Thursday’s meeting, Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samarrai, head of the Sunni endowment in Iraq, said criminals would not be able to divide Iraqis along religious and ethnic lines.

“Iraqis are one body. If the Christian part suffers, the rest of the Muslim body will respond to it. Iraqi blood is sacred, you cannot cross a red line,” Samarrai told attendants of “The Religions’ Dialogue” conference in western Baghdad.

Insurgents linked to al Qaeda have claimed responsibility for the attacks, which have raised fears of a return to sectarian violence that ravaged Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and peaked in 2006-2007.

The Islamic State of Iraq, the local affiliate of al Qaeda, has said Iraqi Christians will be the target of further attacks unless they pressure the Christian church in Egypt to release women it said the church was holding after they had converted to Islam.

Iraq’s Christians once numbered about 1.5 million but are now believed to have fallen to less than 850,000 out of a population of 30 million.

Some 1,000 Christian families have fled to Iraq’s northern Kurdish region or to nearby countries since the assault on the cathedral, the United Nations said.

“The Christian in Iraq is not an enemy to anyone, he never turned a gun on anyone and never fought to drive Muslims out of their homes in this country,” Abdullah al-Naftali, head of Iraq’s Christian endowment group, said.

The meeting was the first of its kind and took place at Um al-Qura mosque in western Baghdad. A picture of two hands emerging from two famous Sunni and Shi’ite mosques and embracing the Our Lady of Salvation cathedral -- where the October 31 siege took place -- adorned a wall of the Qura mosque.

Violence in Iraq has fallen sharply since the height of sectarian warfare between majority Shi’ites and once dominant Sunnis triggered, but bombings and shootings remain a daily occurrence.

Reporting by Khalid al-Ansary; Editing by Serena Chaudhry